Geoffrey Millard, photo courtesy of himself.

Formerly homeless veteran harnesses local and federal housing resources for others 

Geoffrey Millard is no stranger to the challenges faced by homeless veterans. In fact, he was once a homeless veteran himself. Yet he feels optimistic about reducing the number of homeless veterans thanks to recent local and national policy initiatives.  

Millard wears pastel business shirts and talks cheerfully about his work, but it isn’t hard to imagine that he was once a soldier. He served in the Army National Guard from age 17 to 26, while taking college classes part-time. Then in October of 2004, Millard was sent to Iraq where he was stationed for 13 months.  

Upon returning to the United States, Millard joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. He became involved in politics as a grassroots organizer for the group. While organizing on Capitol Hill, Millard sometimes lived hand-to-mouth and slept on park benches. At the time he didn’t realize he was homeless, but it put fire beneath him to “change the world.”  

“It’s naïve,” he says. “I know. But I still believe that if we do the right work, we can change the way the world works.”  

It was in 2009 that the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place (CCHFP), a non-profit organization that aims to enable homeless and formerly homeless adults in upper Northwest D.C., decided to make homeless veterans the focus of its annual symposium. Millard decided to attend. Before long, Millard found himself applying for and then accepting the position of Director of the Homeless Veterans Initiative at CCHFP.  

While it is clear that the credit belongs to the efforts of many people, Millard has seen the rate of homeless veterans decrease. From 2009 to 2010, the number of homeless people in the District rose by five percent, but the number of homeless veterans fell. The annual homeless enumeration sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found 497 homeless individuals who identified themselves as veterans living in the District in January of 2010, a 13 percent decrease from 2009.  

Mayor Adrian Fenty and President Barack Obama have both placed emphasis on the need to house homeless veterans. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness created the first comprehensive plan to end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015.  

Last year the Obama Administration announced plans to expand Veterans Administration services to 500,000 by 2013, in part by increasing the VA budget by $25 billion dollars through that time period.  

Millard speaks excitedly about the HUD-VASH initiative, a supportive housing program piloted in D.C. “Both the White House and the VA want DC to be the flagship for the country,” he says of the program, which prioritizes homeless vets. “We are the model. We want to make it a model where we end homelessness among veterans.”  

The D.C. HUD-VASH program has tried to do the same. The first HUD-VASH vouchers were granted on December 17th, 2009, and in that round, 175 veterans were placed in housing. Another round of 175 veterans are being housed now. And federal efforts have trickled down to encourage other programs to assist homeless vets as well, Millard said.  

Millard explains that, in the case of D.C., progress made through programs such as HUD-VASH is being assisted by positive “mentality changes” in the VA, including reduced caseloads for VA caseworkers, especially among those serving the most vulnerable vets.  

“We have a lot of work to do,” he says. “We are nowhere near ending homelessness among vets.” Millard explains that homeless Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans are usually quickly identified and housed. In spite of progress, an estimated 107,000 former service men and women remain homeless nationwide, nearly half of them veterans of the Vietnam War era.  

For Millard, these are harsh truths, but not insurmountable ones. When asked about the potential of ending veterans’ homelessness, he is very optimistic. “I think we can do it,” he said. “We just need to put the resources where they need to be.”  

“There are neighborhood meetings all the time that influence policy. If you are involved in your local community, you’re involved in public policy,” he said. “I’m a believer in participatory democracy. Not vote-every-four-years democracy. Democracy is every day.”