Statesman Op-Ed: Time to help our veteran heroes

This article was also published by the Austin American-Statesman on Nov. 7, 2015

We owe a lot to our veterans, and honoring them is what the upcoming Veterans Day is all about. They have sacrificed and given so much of themselves for us, but what does it mean to truly honor our vets?

How about the simple but profound assistance of helping our homeless vets — our homeless heroes — find a home?

Five years ago, the Obama administration set what some thought was an unreachable goal for an intractable problem with an unrealistic deadline: ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. My predecessor, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, accepted this challenge for Austin, and I reaffirmed our community’s commitment. Though we’re not going to get there by Veterans Day this week, we are going to finish the job and find homes for these heroes.

One homeless vet is too many. Yet many are surprised to hear how few veteran men, women and their children are on our streets. We have only about 100.

On Jan. 1, 234 homeless veterans were counted in Austin. That’s the number that needs to get to zero by the end of this year to meet the challenge from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. When the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) asked me to accept the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homeless, 200 veterans still needed housing. I immediately signed on and set an even-more ambitious goal of accomplishing this by Veterans Day.

We used to think veteran homelessness was just a fact of life, less an unsolvable problem than a hopeless condition of modern-day America. But it’s not that way at all. We can, and are, solving this problem because we’ve learned some exciting things about what Austin is capable of.

The first thing we learned is that there’s a ton of support for ending veteran homelessness. When we started the Housing Heroes program, we began raising money to mitigate risks for apartment owners. Initially, we thought we needed $150,000. So far, we’ve raised $375,000 and have increased our goal to $500,000 by the end of the year. Turns out, the veterans aren’t the only heroes in this story.

It’s a good thing we raised more money, because another thing we learned is that we were going to need to buy down some of these rents to make them affordable to those homeless veterans who have jobs. Thanks to the unexpected generosity of so many, we were able to handle this unexpected challenge.

That brings us to the last group of heroes we discovered: property owners and managers. For the first time, ECHO is able to partner with the Austin Apartment Association and the Austin Board of Realtors. This gives ECHO unprecedented access to property owners and managers, making the job of getting homeless veterans into apartments more doable. This is a new paradigm for dealing with homeless in Austin that will survive the Housing Heroes program.

We’re not there yet. Since May 1, our Housing Heroes program has found homes for 82 homeless veterans. That’s 82 success stories — and more moving in every week and dozens more leases about to close — but we are still short the goal of ending veteran homelessness by the federal government’s original deadline. Thanks to the new cooperation between ECHO and property owners and the financial support of so many, we’re going to finish this job.

Here’s where you come in — because if Austin is going to end veteran homeless by the end of the year, then we’re going to need some more heroes. We need more contributions to the Housing Heroes Fund, and we’re still looking for apartment owners and managers to step up and provide apartments for these veterans. If you can help, go to

This won’t be easy. Often, homeless veterans don’t have the spotless backgrounds that landlords prefer to see on rental applications, but clearly these heroes have earned second chances and fresh starts. To reach our goal, we’re going to need property owners and landlords to look past the perfect to see what is possible.

We’re so close to achieving what we once thought would never be possible, but it takes ambitious goals and audacious plans to achieve big things. I accepted this challenge on your behalf, and now I’m asking for your help to meet it. There is no question that homeless veterans have earned our help or that it is now within our power to find them homes. The only question is if Austin has enough heroes left to finish the job.