How Does Rapid Re-housing Help Veterans Get off the Street and into a Home? An Expert Dialogue

by Kimberly Burrowes

On a single night in 2018, about 38,000 veterans were homeless, and roughly 15,000 of them were unsheltered. These considerable numbers underscore this population’s unmet needs and the persistent resource gaps that perpetuate veteran homelessness.

Rapid re-housing is an essential tool in the housing stability toolbox for responding to homelessness. Evidence shows that crisis response intervention through rapid re-housing can minimize the amount of time people are homeless and their inability to connect to the services they need. Organizations providing housing support services to low-income veterans and their families use Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) to assist those at imminent risk of homelessness. The program provides short-term assistance to stabilize veterans in housing—either before or quickly after they become homeless. SSVF leverages flexible spending for rent and financial assistance, case management, outreach, and benefits including health care, legal support, and transportation. Funding is channeled to community-based nonprofit organizations for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has consistently allocated funding for this program, a trajectory continuing through fiscal year 2019.

SSVF has been an important crisis response mechanism for helping veterans and their families exit homelessness, but as the affordability gap widens with rising housing costs, is this allocation enough?

To explore the benefits and challenges of rapid re-housing support services, How Housing Matters asked a group of experts to weigh in. Contributing to the discussion are Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Jacob Donnelly, director of supportive services at Swords to Plowshares, and Samantha Batko, research associate at the Urban Institute. Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.

How Housing Matters: Ending veteran homelessness requires a comprehensive approach, and there are therefore several interventions to assist veterans experiencing homelessness. Where in this landscape does SSVF fit in, and what does the evidence tell us about its effectiveness?

Monet: SSVF is a critical crisis response tool that has dramatically accelerated communities’ abilities to rapidly move unsheltered veterans into housing. As an intervention, SSVF has been quite effective at providing cost-effective housing assistance in many parts of the country. The program serves significantly more women and families than other VA programs on account of its flexibility, making it easier to serve this subpopulation than it was in the past.

Batko: Evidence shows the program is effective in helping veterans achieve key short-term goals: exiting homelessness quickly, accessing permanent housing, and not returning to homelessness in the immediate future. Evidence also shows that veterans experience modest increases in income during the program. While SSVF is effective at meeting these short-term goals to help homeless veterans, it is part of a broader array of services available to assist homeless veterans that include supportive housing in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH) and employment programming in the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP).

Donnelly: SSVF primarily works with veterans to quickly obtain alternatives to permanently subsidized housing in the community. This is crucial to preventing a scenario in which the only path to housing for homeless veterans becomes waiting a year or more to become chronically homeless and eligible for VASH or other housing subsidies. Therefore, SSVF reduces the strain on VASH and other housing subsidy programs so that those veterans who can obtain and maintain housing without a permanent subsidy have the assistance needed to do so.

Batko: SSVF providers can work closely with providers of HUD-VASH and HVRP to ensure veterans have comprehensive resources and continuity of services. In fiscal year 2016 (PDF), 33 percent of veterans exited the SSVF program to permanent housing through a HUD-VASH voucher (56 percent exited to rental housing without an ongoing permanent voucher). Therefore, coordination between SSVF and HUD-VASH providers is particularly important, especially for veterans who need ongoing housing and services support.

How Housing Matters: What are the more successful ways you’ve seen SSVF being applied in different localities?

Donnelly: I like to think about this in the spectrum of how veterans access services at Swords to Plowshares. It is important to think about how the outreach services provided through SSVF are fully integrated into our Drop-In programming, allowing us to work with veterans to become eligible for SSVF in the first place. That flexibility allows us to work with hard-to-reach veterans who may need to work with staff and legal services to obtain their eligibility documents or upgrade their discharge status, without which many veterans would not even enter the SSVF program.

Batko: Personally, I’ve interviewed veterans who have received SSVF assistance who indicated their SSVF provider was key to helping them stop sleeping outside by finding an apartment and paying for that apartment in the short term while they found a job and secured income to become self-sufficient. I’ve talked to veterans who have stayed in the same apartments and those who have gone on to own homes. Regardless of where the veteran ended up long term, the help exiting homelessness, often unsheltered homelessness, is monumental to the people who receive assistance.

Monet: The most successful way that SSVF can be employed is to heavily utilize its supportive services to increase veteran income. Ensuring veterans are accessing employment and the earned-income benefits they are entitled to allows a short-term intervention to have a lasting impact on the lives of veteran families. It is one thing—and a great thing—to find a veteran family a place to live, but it is another to truly set them on the path of permanent housing stability. Communities that address what can be done to influence the supply side and expand the pipeline of affordable housing options and providers who focus on measures that would make a housing placement more sustainable are the ultimate recipe for success.

How Housing Matters: SSVF is expected to leverage supportive services to help at-risk veterans and their families but cannot address the challenges facing veteran housing stability on its own. Are there other strategies, programs, or funding channels that organizations should pursue to bolster the efforts of SSVF?

Batko: SSVF is designed to provide outreach, housing location, financial, and case management assistance to veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The resources are flexible, meaning they can be tailored to the needs of the veteran, but they are not ongoing. A key goal for SSVF programs is to connect veterans with existing community resources that can provide long-term support once a veteran is no longer receiving assistance from the SSVF program. Thus, a key component of case management work within SSVF is to connect veterans to other programming. This could include the before-mentioned HUD-VASH program and HVRP, as well as connections to VA medical centers and other community-based programs that may or may not be dedicated to veterans including employment and training programs, food assistance programs, and mental health and substance use programs.

Donnelly: One challenge is that SSVF, by design, is somewhat limited in scope when it comes to working with other housing services. For example, we are prohibited from doing housing searches and case management for veterans who are receiving a housing subsidy such as VASH, so that a veteran isn't receiving two VA-funded case managers in their VASH worker and an SSVF staff member. We are still allowed to provide a security deposit to those veterans, and without that, almost all those veterans would be unable to move into their housing because of lack of savings or other programs to help pay for their security deposit.

Monet: In response, organizations should do everything within their power to leverage the affordable housing capacity in their community and work with anyone who is interested in developing affordable housing, whether reserved for veterans or not. Organizations can also leverage the expertise of external partners to connect their veterans to mainstream assistance, from legal aid to Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income to transportation subsidies to state-administered benefits such as child care assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Avoiding the preventable return to homelessness should always be a priority. I cannot understate the importance of SSVF grantees partnering with Department of Labor Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program grantees, the public workforce system, and local workforce boards to provide employment services and connect them to the labor market.

How Housing Matters: Once veterans receive housing services, maintaining housing stability is key. The threat of eviction is a concern for those living on the cusp of homelessness. In what ways can SSVF be a response mechanism for eviction prevention and offer long-term stability?

Batko: SSVF provides both homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing assistance to veterans. Veterans who have been rapidly re-housed previously—either through SSVF or another rapid re-housing program—may be eligible for SSVF prevention assistance if they become at risk of eviction. Decisions about how to target prevention resources available through SSVF are made at the local level, but because a risk factor for becoming homeless is a prior episode of homelessness, communities may want to target SSVF prevention resources to veterans who have previously experienced homelessness and have been re-housed either through SSVF or another assistance program.

Donnelly: At Swords to Plowshares we provide additional supports through SSVF to help veterans maintain their housing and increase their quality of life while housed for the long term. For instance, our SOAR and Money Management programs help veterans increase and then stabilize their income and spending. We have 102 veterans enrolled in money management, many of whom were served with SSVF housing assistance. Our homelessness prevention services have prevented eviction because nonpayment of rent for hundreds of veterans in San Francisco and Alameda County in the last few years—163 were served in the most recent contract year.

Monet: There are a few ways SSVF can be helpful. First, SSVF can help communities figure out how and when to shift more of its resources to homelessness prevention, rather than rapid re-housing, to enable them to serve existing needs. Second, SSVF ensures that providers have adequate connections to legal assistance and other financial planning resources to help stabilize veterans in their housing. Third, the VA maintains a wealth of data on homeless veterans. SSVF can and should be looking at its data on the homelessness prevention resources to advance their understanding of effective eviction prevention across the field and how providers have been working to end homelessness.

How Housing Matters: Although there has been some progress toward ending veteran homelessness, getting people off the street and stably housed in the long term could require an expansion of investments. Is the funding provided through SSVF sufficient to meet the demand in localities, particularly those in high-cost housing markets?

Monet: While the SSVF program has continued to grow from its origins as a $60 million program, additional growth would allow the VA to both expand the reach of the program and to intensify efforts in communities that are most in need. However, high-cost rental markets present a unique set of challenges, as do widespread rural areas. Currently, though the program has broad coverage across the nation, there are gaps in service. Even where there is coverage in some rural areas, the provision of services can be challenging. More funding, and therefore more grants, would allow for better geographic distribution in these areas and more comprehensive, effective, coverage. Likewise, in high-cost rental markets, an increase in grants can allow the VA to test new service models that may increase long-term housing retention.

Donnelly: A lot of our work also involves helping our veteran clients set realistic expectations given the current market. The funding provided through SSVF should be enough, however, here in the Bay Area, unfortunately, it is not. There is great competition in high-cost areas for the limited amount of affordable housing units available. This makes it incredibly difficult for veterans to get prioritized for housing. Many of them had housing for years that they could afford, in neighborhoods that they and their families lived in for decades. Unfortunately, because of gentrification and the rising cost of housing, low-income residents and people of color are being displaced. As a result, a large percentage of our successful housing placements have involved helping veterans reestablish housing in outer suburbs and neighboring cities that are more affordable. While many people in the region are making the same move, it does mean in many cases that veterans in these more rural and suburban communities have less access to public transportation, health care, social services, and the social support from long-term neighbors and nearby family members.

Much of the challenge also lies on the supply side. Landlords have no problem finding a tenant who can rent quickly, without any delays (and we’re only talking a few days) caused by our abiding by SSVF procedures in inspecting the unit and verifying chart documents before providing financial assistance with these VA funds. I'm not at all arguing that those checks and balances be reduced or removed, but it’s just an example of the reality of the housing market here. Many landlords also have concerns when renting to someone with a criminal background, an inconsistent rental history, or in some cases, even to veterans at all. Having additional funds to offer as an incentive to landlords to hold units for our veterans while we inspect the unit, and then additional funds to mitigate any damages that might occur, would both be huge carrots in highly competitive markets.

Batko: Overall, the effectiveness of SSVF programming in high-cost housing markets versus low-cost housing markets, and the effectiveness of rapid re-housing generally, is an outstanding research question. It is possible that veterans re-housed in high-cost rental markets may need more financial assistance—either a larger monthly subsidy or assistance for a longer period of time in order to stabilize, but more investigation needs to be done on this. To date though, SSVF programs have continued to operate in high-cost markets, and national performance data for the program continues to show its effectiveness.

Photo by  Am2 Antonio Battista/Shutterstock