How One Award-Winning LHD Successfully Expanded Services for Homeless Veterans

Interview by Ian Goldstein, Web and New Media Specialist, NACCHO

NACCHO’s LHD of the Year Award recognizes and honors outstanding accomplishments of local health departments (LHDs) across the country for their innovation, creativity, and impact on communities. Whatcom County (WA) Health Department is the winner of NACCHO’s 2014 Local Health Department of the Year Award in the medium-sized jurisdiction category for its initiative to house and expand services for homeless veterans. The following is an excerpt from a recent podcast in which NACCHO interviewed Regina Delahunt, MS, REHS, Director, Whatcom County Health Department.

NACCHO: Tell us about your policy and why you wanted to apply for NACCHO’s LHD of the Year Award.

Delahunt: We applied because the award’s focus was on policy development. About five years ago, we made conscious decision in our health jurisdiction to focus on more upstream policy-level change, especially policies that affect the social determinants of health. We applied because we have had quite a bit of success with the policy-level change. We wanted to showcase one of our biggest successes and recognize all of our partners because we could not do this on our own. We also wanted to share our experience with other health jurisdictions so that maybe their road to policy development would be a little bit easier.

NACCHO: Is homelessness a large problem in Whatcom County?

Delahunt: Whatcom County is the most northwest county in Washington state. We are right on the corner of British Columbia, Canada, and we’re right on the coast. It’s a great place to live. Our population is about 200,000. We have one major metropolitan area, the city of Bellingham, which makes up a little less than half of the total population. The rest of the community is rural and agricultural.

In 2008, we started focusing on homelessness in Whatcom County. We started doing a point-in-time count every year to see what the size of our homeless population was. In counting the data, we noticed that from 2008 to 2011, the homeless population, and in particularly the veteran population, remained pretty stable. About 12% of our homeless population were veterans; in other words, about 85 veterans. In 2011, we did a community needs assessment and one of the needs identified in that process was the need for stable, secure housing for our veterans.

NACCHO: Tell us more about the services you expanded.

Delahunt: We approached our county council with an ordinance to formally establish a veteran’s services assistance program. Essentially, it took a little bit of the property tax revenue and allowed it to be used not just for housing veterans but also for a net of services that veterans need.

NACCHO: What were some of the challenges you faced when implementing the policy?

Delahunt: Actually, there weren’t very many challenges. We have a great community in which our partners and everyone really wanted to help the veterans. Perhaps the biggest challenge was building the trust of the veterans; getting the veterans to accept offers of assistance and begin to trust that were there to help them.

The other challenge I can think of was working with the business community. We had to build the trust of the landlords because a lot of the folks that we helping have definite issues and they are probably not always model tenants. It was difficult building that trust as well. In the end it has worked out really well. We put some measures in place to ensure that if there were problems or if damage occurred, we had a small fund that can guarantee that we will help with any problems.

NACCHO: You mentioned that the policy was funded by property taxes. Were you able to secure additional funding for this policy?

Delahunt: Yes. The property tax doesn’t generate tons of money but it’s a good base we used to leverage other funds. One thing we did that really helped secure other funding was to showcase what we were trying to do. The first community in Washington state to host a veterans housing conference. We were sure invite our congressional delegates and others from the veteran’s administration to come to the conference. They did and as a result we were invited to apply for other veteran’s housing vouchers and veteran’s assistance funds.

Another policy that we were also able to convince our elected officials to enact was a tenth-of-one-percent sales tax for behavioral health services in our community, which does generate a significant amount of money. We were able to use some of that behavioral health sales tax to help the veterans with behavioral health issues, which is very common.

NACCHO: What advice would you give to other LHDs interested in implementing a similar policy?

Delahunt: Probably the biggest piece of advice I would offer is partner, partner, partner. This isn’t something that a health jurisdiction can do on its own. I think you’ll be surprised to see just how many partners are willing to get involved. Also, really look for evidence-based practices to use. We relied heavily on the Housing First model. The other thing that is really critical is to make sure that you collect the data and that your programs are data-driven because unless you can show the difference that you are making and have the data to guide your program, you won’t achieve the success that I think you are looking for.

NACCHO is now accepting applications for the LHD of the Year Award. Learn more and apply.

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