Veteran Bobby Johnston served in the Navy from 1977 to 1981 and lives in the traditional housing at the Madison Street Veterans Association in Phoenix. / Patrick Breen, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- Army veteran Mike Dougherty lost his job around 2006 as the economy began to tank. He lived on his savings until he couldn't anymore. He became homeless and lived on the street and in shelters for six years.
Two and half years ago, he met a group of people at a Phoenix event for homeless veterans. They told him: We've got you covered. A swarm of providers worked to help Dougherty, now 55, get medical help and compile his paperwork; within no time, he found a home at a Phoenix apartment complex for veterans.
Dougherty is one of 222 formerly homeless veterans in the Valley that now have homes thanks to an initiative launched by former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has become the face of failed leadership, mismanagement and untimely care at VA facilities nationwide.
The formerly homeless vet followed news coverage of the scandal, and it led him to reflect on his own fortune.
He said he was thankful for what Shinseki's efforts did for him, but "I felt bad for those vets that were left out in the cold, when I got what I needed. There are a lot of people that didn't."
For the past month, local and national VA officials have come under fire after whistle-blowers alleged lengthy wait times at the Phoenix VA, manipulation of patient wait-time records and mismanagement. The interim report released Wednesday by the VA Office of Inspector General confirmed those allegations. After mounting calls nationwide for Shinseki's resignation, he gave up his post Friday morning.
But Dougherty and others who were like him - stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of homelessness - will remember a positive aspect of Shinseki's legacy: His devotion to veterans like them.
It was only three months ago when local homeless providers and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton declared success after permanently housing all 222 of the chronically homeless veterans they had identified in 2011, per Shinseki's goal to end veteran homelessness nationwide.
Since the announcement, however, reports of wait-time issues at the Phoenix VA and the ensuing fallout have overshadowed strides made in housing local veterans.
Many local providers said Shinseki's efforts to decrease veteran homelessness shouldn't be diminished in light of the VA scandal - nor should it absolve him of potential leadership failures that led to delayed care.
Shinseki's charge helped local and state providers work through Phoenix VA regulations and mandates to prioritize and expedite veteran housing, officials said.
"It was our collaboration with the Phoenix coalition, other Arizona homeless providers and the Phoenix VA to really go outside the box and really make an impact," said Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness. "Gosh, it would've been great if we could've done that with each aspect of medical care at the Phoenix VA."
The coalition coordinated Project H3 Vets, a nationally recognized program that involved a cross-section of community organizations to use federal housing vouchers to house chronically homeless veterans. After being housed, veterans receive services such as substance-abuse counseling and behavioral health care to get them back on their feet.
Under Shinseki's administration, the national and Phoenix VA made resources available and issued more federal housing vouchers than ever before, said Brad Bridwell, director of community development at Cloudbreak Communities, a veteran-housing organization.
"Secretary Shinseki, without a doubt, in the homeless-veteran world, is a champion," Bridwell said. "He put the resources out there like nobody else has done on the issue. It's unfortunate to hear about the wait times and the broader issue of VA health care."
Local officials emphasized that their interactions with housing and social-work staff at the Phoenix VA has been productive, and they lamented a blanket black eye on the Phoenix VA.
"The front-line VA folks who worked on the homeless boot-camp team were required to completely rethink their processes, and often had to do a lot of internal advocacy within their own agency," said Jodi Liggett, Stanton's former senior policy adviser on homelessness.
Stanton said Friday he supported Shinseki's resignation. He acknowledged the VA and Shinseki helped house veterans here, especially by providing vouchers, but credited the majority of the success to local providers.
Health-care wait-time and access issues also affect veterans who are housed through the initiative and will affect returning veterans on the brink of homelessness, Stanton said. Resolving wait-time issues is important so formerly and future homeless veterans can access substance-abuse counseling and behavioral health care to help them live independently, he said.
"The health-care part of it is key for that. So solving this (wait-time) issue is doing right by our veterans who served our country, and doing right by continuing to end homelessness among our veteran population," Stanton said.
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