ROCKFORD, Ill.—James Asel had just started a new job and a new life here when a family fight led to a relative tossing all his belongings out in the snow. Several weeks before the holidays last year, he was homeless, along with his fiancée and three children under age 6.
After a few weeks in a shelter, Mr. Asel tapped into a multiagency program for veterans like him in this Rust Belt city. It landed the family in a new apartment about a month later.
“I was in hell, with the amount of stress and the amount of stuff I was going through daily,” said Mr. Asel, a 31-year-old blacksmith. “They blessed us at Christmas.”
Rockford, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, is one of the first cities to effectively end homelessness among veterans, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Officials consider its programs a model for other cities. Its goal is now to eliminate all homelessness by 2020.
Rockford and dozens of other cities accepted a challenge posed by then-First Lady Michelle Obama in June 2014 to end veteran homelessness, creating a network for city officials to brainstorm and share ideas. Since then, some 63 communities and three states have followed Rockford’s lead to be certified as having solved the problem, including bigger cities like Miami, which was certified last summer. Other major metros, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York have also signed on to the challenge.
“We’ve actually seen it’s possible anywhere,” said Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, though high rents and finding landlords willing to rent to the homeless can be a challenge in bigger cities.
Nationwide, there are about 15,000 unsheltered, homeless veterans, according to the most recent data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rockford, a city of 150,000, is more often known for high rates of violent crime, unemployment and opioid overdoses. There were 819.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people in the Rockford area, according to 2017 Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, and 18 murders in the city. A dozen federal, local and private agencies work together to find a home for any new applicant within 30 days. Rockford and two adjacent counties spend about $3.5 million annually on health and housing programs from state, local and federal sources.
Since 2015 when it was certified for ending veteran homelessness, nearly 200 veterans have received housing in the Rockford area, said Angie Walker, Rockford’s homeless program coordinator. Three veterans were still in need of housing as of Nov. 28.
To keep the city’s certification, there can’t be more than eight identified homeless veterans at any given time. The city keeps a centralized list with names and information for every known homeless person.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Ms. Walker and another city employee, Alex Keedi, drove around in a city car on a weekly sweep looking for homeless people.
“Good morning, is anybody home?” Mr. Keedi asked as he approached a tent pitched next to a ravine. Inside the tent, Vickie Fox and James Farmer were reclining on a mattress. They were nearing the top of the city’s list, with plans to move into an apartment with a private landlord in early December. Ms. Fox will pay about half of the $500 monthly rent with her McDonald’s wages, with state funds covering the rest. The city is paying the security deposit, about another $500.
“I like when I go outside and don’t find any new people, but then at the same time, I get nervous. Like, am I missing somebody?” Ms. Walker said.
One new person added to the list was Mark Bradley, 55, who sat on a mattress under a bridge surrounded by books as Ms. Walker and Mr. Keedi gave him a card with housing program information. His eyes silently welled with tears as he recounted his struggles with mental illness. Mr. Keedi asked if he would be open to living in a high-rise for disabled seniors. “I would not be opposed to anything that gets me out of here,” Mr. Bradley said.
Mr. Asel served in Iraq and is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. He moved to Rockford to save money by living with a relative after he lost his home in Pennsylvania. He described Rockford as a “circus” with nothing for children to do “besides get drugs and get robbed.”
“Every day, people are dropping, people are overdosing, people are getting robbed, but out of all that evil, there’s still good things that happen,” he said.