How the U.S. Is Ending Homelessness Among Vets — One City at a Time

This year’s spring thaw will hopefully usher in some good news — a further decrease in the number of homeless U.S. veterans. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recently conducted Point-in-Time count of people living on the streets or in shelters across the country is expected to show a continued drop in the number of homeless veterans.

Each count, and each decline, brings the United States one step closer to solving what has been a vexing challenge for more than a generation.

Last year’s count tallied 49,933 homeless veterans, a decline of 33% — or 24,837 veterans — from 2010.

Housing experts credit several evidence-based practices for the long-sought decrease. Among them is “Housing First,” which provides veterans with a safe place to live before tackling other problems they might face, such as chronic health challenges or substance abuse. In the past, people who were homeless generally had to resolve those issues before becoming eligible for housing.

The HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program, which combines vouchers for private rentals with supportive services delivered at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, has also been a critical tool in keeping veterans in permanent housing. The program has helped close to 75,000 veterans since 2009, through a mix of traditional housing contexts and permanent supportive housing.

“By pairing rental assistance with case management and clinical and supportive services, we have better responded to veterans’ unique needs and made significant progress in reducing homelessness,” said Jennifer Ho, HUD’s Senior Advisor for Housing and Services.

The White House and HUD have been working toward eliminating homelessness for veterans, and for the “chronic homeless,” by the end of this year, a goal set at the dawn of the Obama administration. But earlier this year, citing budget constraints, the administration reset the target for ending chronic homelessness to 2017. Tools like the Vulnerability Index from Community Solutions have helped communities across the country end chronic and veteran homelessness by identifying their highest risk cases and bring them to the front of the line.

New Orleans was the first U.S. city to announce that it had eradicated homelessness among those who served, placing 1,000-plus veterans in permanent housing. The city accomplished its mission a year ahead of schedule, in 2014. Like most other cities, New Orleans partnered with non-profits to achieve this goal. More than a third of previously homeless veterans now live alongside low-income families in a converted school that had stood vacant since Hurricane Katrina swamped the city in 2005.

Sam Joel, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s policy advisor, told The Times-Picayune in January that though a homeless veteran could be somewhere in the city today, a system is now in place to identify their needs and move to help them.

"We've built this machine where we can house homeless veterans rapidly,” he said.

Of course, the goal extends far beyond simply getting veterans off the streets and out of shelters. New Orleans and other cities are working diligently to help veterans solve the issues at the root of their homelessness. One approach is a concept called “rapid re-housing,” which works to place individuals or families in permanent housing within 30 days of their entering a shelter or transitional housing program.

Housing experts and activists know, though, that the broader homeless population, including high-risk families who cycle in and out of homelessness, needs additional support, too. In that vein, the federal government has put forward an initiative to end all homelessness by 2020.

“Homelessness will always be an ongoing challenge,” Ho said. “That is why our goal is two-fold: help get veterans off the streets now, and put a system in place to ensure that homelessness is prevented whenever possible in the future. … We’ll be most successful when individual communities lead the charge to end and prevent homelessness.”

Soldier On, a non-profit based in Leeds, Mass., helps veterans find permanent housing solutions. It even runs a community specifically for veterans. CEO John Downing said the increased emphasis on solving the problem of veteran homelessness is in part the result of taking the time to recognize exactly what veterans were willing to give — and did give — in the service of their country.

"A major on his way back to the field spoke to a group of us a few years ago and told us he was prepared to die for us in battle,” said Downing. “When I heard that, I got to work to help solve the crisis. How can we ask people who were prepared to die for us stand in line to wait for food, for benefits and for a home?”