America’s Call to Duty: Ending Veterans’ Homelessness
Last year there was a slight uptick—a less than 1% increase—in the number of Veterans experiencing homelessness. The increase comes after years of mostly steady decreases, with strong advocacy, intergovernmental coordination and priority setting, and steady funding for evidence-based programs halving Veteran’s homelessness since 2009 when HUD first reported this data. While Veterans represented 23% of the entire homeless population in the United States in 1996, that number was just 8% in 2020. However, there is much more work to be done to house Veterans and we don’t yet know what role the pandemic will play in rates of Veteran homelessness. According to HUD, there were more than 37,000 Veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2020.
Based on available data and research, homeless Veterans share certain attributes—they tend to be younger, “enlisted with lower pay grades,” and more likely “to be diagnosed with mental disorders or traumatic brain injury” when compared to Veterans with housing. In fact, more than 50% of homeless Veterans have experienced some form of mental illness, including substance use disorders, or suffered from a traumatic brain injury.
Veterans represent a unique subgroup of the entire homeless population and, as such, may be eligible for different federal programs and benefits. There is a lot of data and research on Veterans’ homelessness, and years of testing and expanding housing and service programs provide valuable lessons for addressing broader challenges with homelessness.
HUD and the VA have pursued a “Housing First” approach to help Veterans “obtain stable housing as quickly as possible without barriers or preconditions.” Of primary importance is placing homeless individuals in permanent housing regardless of their intent to participate in treatment, education, job training, and more. While these wraparound services are often offered, the foremost concern is housing.
A number of federally operated programs target the needs of homeless Veterans, specifically, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) and the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program:
- The SSVF program rapidly re-houses Veterans with very low incomes who are homeless or on the verge of losing their housing. Federal grants are provided to non-profit organizations which in turn provide wraparound services, including case management and temporary financial support, until housing stability is achieved.
- The HUD-VASH program provides rental housing vouchers and wraparound services to homeless Veterans. Since 2008, Congress has allocated funding to local public housing authorities through the HUD-VASH program based on geographic need and PHA performance. HUD-VASH “enrolls the largest number and largest percentage of Veterans who have experienced long-term or repeated homelessness,” providing assistance to more than 90,000 Veterans in 2019.
While the impacts of COVID-19 on those experiencing homelessness remain to be seen, there are other tangible impediments to securing adequate housing for homeless Veterans, including:
- Underutilization of HUD-VASH vouchers. According to data from HUDs Housing Choice Voucher Program Dashboard, of the 100,000+ HUD-VASH vouchers awarded, less than 80,000 are being utilized. With just 75% of appropriated vouchers aiding Veterans as of August, 2021, more attention should be paid towards making distributing existing vouchers more efficient to both prevent waste and house more Veterans.
- Rising Per Unit Costs. Since 2015, HUD reported increasing per unit costs from households utilizing Housing Choice Vouchers. In 2015, the average per unit cost of a household utilizing a voucher was just under $650/unit, while in 2021 it was more than$800/unit. This trend will continue to impact the broader homeless community, including Veterans, as HUD must contend with existing need alongside rising costs.
- Lack of VA support and medical staff to provide services and process Veterans. The VA faces a shortage of both case managers and health care providers critical to serving the needs of Veterans, both homeless and domiciled. In 2020, the GAO found “staffing shortages” of case managers as the primary “challenge in implementing selected programs” for homeless Veterans. A report from the VA’s Inspector General additionally found that 95% of VA Health providers faced “at least one severe occupational shortage” as of late 2019, with psychiatry referenced as the clinical occupation with the most severe staffing needs.
As the nation prepares to honor those who have served this Veterans’ Day, it is worth reflecting on the great progress that has been made and the work which remains to end Veterans’ homelessness. As President Ronald Reagan said during his remarks on Veterans’ Day in 1983, “Veterans have given their best for all of us, and we must continue to do our best by them…. They have never let America down. We will not let them down.”
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