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upworthy

Camaron Stevenson

Of the nearly 600,000 people who experience homelessness on any given night in the United States, more than 40,000 are veterans.

But in the city of Riverside, California, that number has dropped to something known as "functional zero."

The city has maintained functional zero — meaning the number of people experiencing homelessness is less than the monthly housing placement rate — since 2016.


Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey says that as a veteran himself, he had to try to solve this problem. "Some of my own neighbors have become homeless, and they've been erased from society and ended up dying because of homelessness," he says.

[rebelmouse-image 19476268 dam="1" original_size="465x222" caption="Photo via Chris Murphy/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo via Chris Murphy/Unsplash.

Bailey joined 77 mayors, four governors, and four county officials from across the country in committing to end veteran homelessness.

The movement is a part of former first lady Michelle Obama's program "Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness," an extension of the 2010 program Opening Doors. Opening Doors combined the use of federal resources and local leadership to help communities put a plan in place to ensure homelessness is prevented whenever possible. Or if it can't be prevented, it is a brief, and non-recurring experience.

Bailey attributes Riverside's success to the city's Housing First Policy.

"You can't end homelessness without housing," says Bailey. "Becoming homeless is a vicious cycle our neighbors without homes end up in, and the sooner we can take them out of that cycle the better, the sooner we can place them into housing, the better."

It all starts with the city's Homeless Outreach Team, who first gets to know people who are homeless and help them feel like they are part of the community.

The team assesses health care needs, learns about their family, and builds a relationship of trust with each individual until they are ready to accept help in finding housing.

The policy uses a combination of local, state, and federal resources to create enough affordable housing options to meet the amount of unsheltered persons living within city limits, along with wrap-around support services put in place to help those who battle with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Bailey says the first step is helping homeless veterans take advantage of programs that were already put in place through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This means taking additional steps that often go overlooked, such as helping veterans obtain valid IDs and convincing landlords and accept housing vouchers. Bailey says the city even offers some landlords annual stipends of up to $250 to cover the cost of any repairs housing units may need.

Photo courtesy of Lechenie Narkomanii.

And the policy seems to be working.

Since the city first identified 80 veterans who were homeless in early 2016, Riverside has consistently maintained its veteran homeless population of functional zero.

"Now that we have this model, we can take it to the rest of the population," says Bailey. "They're all human beings, and we're all neighbors here in Riverside."

Now that veteran homelessness has been greatly reduced, the city is focusing on high school and college students without homes.

Riverside is home to thousands of high school and college students, many of whom have no place to live. Bailey says the city is working with schools to determine which students are currently homeless and create housing projects in areas of need, but with the stigma attached, identifying students in need is sometimes a difficult process.

Now that a potential solution to aiding people who are homeless seems to be working in Riverside, city officials are working with other regional leaders to spread their success to neighboring communities. The Western Riverside Council of Governments is made up of 18 cities, and members of WRCOG are optimistic that what works in Riverside can work in their communities as well.

"It's important for us to work on this together," says Bailey. There's no city limits to homelessness.

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This homeless high schooler just graduated in 2 years with a full-ride scholarship.

One of D.C.’s 4,000 homeless youth just received an amazing opportunity.

Destyni Tyree was 16 and living in a homeless shelter when she was voted prom queen and graduated high school two years early.

All photos via Destyni Tyree, used with permission.

A few years before graduation, Destyni’s family fell on particularly hard times. Her mother lost her job, and not long after, they lost their apartment, too. They ended up at the D.C. General Homeless Center, a city-run shelter that houses about 270 families.


“It was tough,” said Destyni. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Destyni dropped out of two different high schools before getting accepted to Roosevelt STAY, an alternative high school that aims to transform students' lives and change the trajectory of their future.

“If it wasn’t for the people at STAY, and my mom, I don’t think I would have made it through high school,” Destyni said.

Roosevelt STAY is one of eight alternative high schools in the District of Columbia. Throughout the U.S., there are over 10,000 of these schools designed to help at-risk students gain an education, and they can make a huge difference. Overall, alternative high schools have a graduation rate of 52% — 30 percentage points lower than the national average. But these students might not have graduated at all without the additional assistance alternative schools provide.

With the help of her mentors, Destyni set two big goals in the new program: graduating high school early and getting into college.

Getting to school was an hourlong commute for Destyni, but that didn’t slow her down at all. In addition to going to class every day — something new for her — she went to class on Saturdays, took online courses, and even spent her summers in the classroom.

“I just knew that whatever happened, I didn’t want to live my life in a shelter,” Destyni said.

But schoolwork wasn’t all she was doing. When she wasn’t in class, Destyni worked 25 hours a week at a local ice cream shop, was captain of the school’s cheer squad, and even found the time to go to prom — where her classmates nominated her to be their queen.

After prom came graduation, where she was awarded the Principal's Award for Academics and the Leadership Award.

Destyni also received another important award: a scholarship to Potomac State College of West Virginia University, where she will start classes at in the fall.

“My goal and career choice is to be a high school principal and to one day own my own charter school,” Destyni announced on her GoFundMe Page.

What does an award-winning high-school graduate who spent her teenage years in a shelter want to study in college?

Education, of course. Go, Destyni!

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These renovated motels will help homeless veterans start new lives.

L.A. is creating 500 new housing units with this smart plan.

In 2015, Los Angeles declared a state of emergency because of their "unprecedented and growing homelessness crisis."

Since then, L.A. city and county agencies have executed a series of actions, and while homelessness overall has had a slight rise in 2016 — not quite 6% over 2015 figures — the number of veterans without homes has gone down 30%, meaning over 1,200 have obtained places to live.

L.A.'s most recent undertaking is different, though: The city will convert old motels into 500 permanent apartments for veterans who are homeless.

If everything goes according to plan, the 500 units, built with help from Step Up, will be available for veterans to move into by January 2017. Coupled with the 300 units the city already provides to homeless residents, L.A. is on track to create 800 permanent housing units annually.


Image via David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.

Repurposing old living spaces as housing for people who are homeless is an unusual idea but not a new one.

The nonprofit homeless housing agency Step Up is helping to facilitate about 400 of L.A.'s motel conversions, and they've been working on developing housing for people on the streets since 1994.

One of Step Up's other transitional apartment conversions — Step Up on Vine in Hollywood — has 34 housing units, and it's been a raging success. Occupants are provided supportive services and may live there as long as they like.

This is the first Step Up on Vine complex in L.A., before and after. Image from Step Up, used with permission.

Images from Step Up, used with permission.

This new housing for homeless veterans in L.A. will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis — hopefully soon.

Step Up plans to use a combination of L.A.'s homeless services registry and their own outreach and engagement team (which actively canvasses the city looking for those in need) to place residents in the new buildings.

This is all part of the city’s plan to achieve a homeless population of functional zero, which means that the number of people who are homeless entering the city every month should be no greater than their monthly housing placement rate.

In addition to the motels, L.A. also has an ambitious 47-point plan for working with the city's ever-growing homeless population in the next few years.

In addition to creating new housing for people on the streets, L.A. has worked to incentivize landlords to make units available those in need. Some of those incentives include guaranteed rent payments and bonuses for holding open housing for someone coming from the streets, too.

"But you can only incentivize so much," said Ben Winters, housing policy specialist for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. "The next step is to build more housing."


Photo by Pretzelpaws/Wikimedia Commons.

Building housing isn’t cheap, so the city’s annual budget calls for $138 million to be used to address homelessness.

And there already are encouraging signs that the effort will really work. When the state of emergency was announced, there were approximately 4,362 veterans who were homeless in L.A. In May 2016, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority reported that had decreased to 3,071.

Plus, 500 new units coming soon means 500 more veterans will be off the streets in the months ahead. That’s something you can’t put a price tag on.

Note: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence.

When Beth Jacobs was 16, she was drugged, kidnapped, and forced into prostitution.

She says that her captor took her to a truck stop and forced her to have sex with a man who asked for a discount afterward because she “cried too much.”


Photo by Ira Gelb/Flickr.

This traumatizing experience was the first of many during her six years as a sex slave.

While the world is a dark place for the approximately 4.5 million people currently trapped in the human trafficking industry in forced sexual exploitation, this is also a story of redemption and heroes.

In 1983 — six years after she was kidnapped — Jacobs was arrested on prostitution charges for what she said felt like the hundredth time. A friend bailed her out, but instead of returning to her pimp, she fled. Jacobs eventually ended up at a battered women’s shelter, where she found the resources she needed to get her life back in order.

Now, she has made it her mission to combat the illegal sex trade and save others like her.

In fact, she’s helping to build an army of folks who want to help fight the sex trade every day … an army that could be almost 3.4 million strong.

Jacobs works as a trainer for Truckers Against Trafficking, or TAT, a nonprofit organization rallying America’s 3.4 million truck drivers to combat trafficking.

Beth Jacobs conducts a training for TAT. Image via Truckers Against Trafficking, used with permission.

She trains the drivers to spot traffickers so they can report their suspicions to the authorities. "If [these drivers] had been around [when I was a sex slave], I truly believe someone would have helped me," Jacobs said.

"The first thing truckers say when they hear about TAT is that they have daughters, they have granddaughters. They want to help," Truckers Against Trafficking’s executive director, Kendis Paris, said.

She’s been amazed by the sweeping acceptance of the program so far: There are over 214,000 people trained by TAT, and she has partnered with hundreds of companies in the trucking industry, including Walmart Transportation and UPS.

Image via Truckers Against Trafficking, used with permission.

Although truck stops can have bad reputations, the people running them often want to put a stop to human trafficking as much as anyone.

According to The Polaris Project, truck stops aren’t even on the top of the list for trafficking venues, though; in 2015, truck stops accounted for 1.5% of sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. But many of the venues of choice for sex traffickers — hotels, motels, bars — are also frequented by truckers, too. "They’re the eyes and ears of the country." she said.

The first organization to take a chance and partner with TAT was the truck stop TA and Petro Stopping Centers.

Since TAT’s first partnership with TA/Petro, they have since teamed up with multiple law enforcement agencies, trucking companies and nonprofits. Law enforcement in Kansas is the most recent of 22 state agencies that have partnered with TAT throughout the U.S., and the state highway patrol in Ohio provides information and training from TAT to everyone who obtains a commercial driver's license. Eventually, Paris hopes that it will be mandatory training in every state.

And by the numbers, it looks like TAT’s plan is working. Though calls to NHRTC hotline are anonymous, calls from truck drivers have skyrocketed since TAT came onto the scene. The hotline has received 1,371 calls from truck drivers since 2007, which involved 744 victims — 249 of which were minors.

The TAT driver training is free, and it only takes a short time.

Basic training for truck drivers is a 26-minute DVD designed to give the basics of what to look for and what to do in case they come across suspected sex traffickers.

Some of the warning signals TAT trains for are tattoos (for branding purposes), recreational vehicles with different people coming in and out, and cars flashing their lights on and off. If a trucker is suspicious, they’re instructed who to call the authorities or the NHTRC hotline. Truck drivers are told not to engage with suspected sex traffickers.

Drivers are also given a wallet card that bullet-points their training, and they’re encouraged to display posters that let victims of human trafficking know they have options, too.

Photo by Truckers Against Trafficking, used with permission.

While the drivers certainly can’t identify every victim of trafficking, the more eyes and ears we have out there, the better.

Human trafficking is a global problem, and it’s going to take a united effort to put a stop to it. But if the testimonials on TAT’s website are any indication, people are ready to fight.

"There’s a place for everyone," Paris said. "We provide the pathways for those who want to help."