Tackling Veteran Homelessness in High-Cost Areas

by Oriya Cohen, Kimberly Burrowes, and Maya Brennan

“Government agencies and Congress generally want immediate results, but planned approaches that meet the needs of those hardest to serve often require time—such as the time to build affordable housing options. We need to somehow balance the need for urgent responses to immediate needs while also investing in the affordable housing infrastructure that the system needs.” —Jacob Donnelly, Director of Supportive Services, Swords to Plowshares

Federal and local prioritization has dramatically reduced the number of homeless veterans, but a shortage of affordable housing could undermine both the short-term and long-term results. Through federal programs and local dedication, a handful of states and cities, including Nashua in New Hampshire, have ended veteran homelessness. National homelessness statistics, however, show that, after dropping nearly 50 percent, homelessness among veterans is on the rise in high-cost areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle. Fierce rental demand across the income spectrum, inadequate housing supply, and insufficient funding for rental subsidies and services are putting veterans at risk.

Veterans experiencing homelessness report that barriers to housing access and housing maintenance are the primary challenges. Research has pointed to effective solutions for improving access and stability, but they all require an adequate housing supply. Rapid re-housing and other emergency financial assistance and case management programs can help veterans access housing quickly and cost-effectively. Veterans with deeper affordability or behavioral health challenges may also need rental subsidies and supportive services through programs like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. These solutions are backed by research yet face implementation challenges amid a rental affordability crisis.

California, which has the largest number of homeless veterans in the country, is a hotbed for housing shortages, severe cost burdens, and homelessness. Several state and local policies and funding sources supplement federal programs, but the state’s rental affordability and homelessness crises challenge local changemakers, like Swords to Plowshares in Northern California, to engage creatively and effectively with the resources available.

Swords to Plowshares is a San Francisco Bay Area organization that has been working to end veteran homelessness for more than 40 years. Through its housing programs, Swords to Plowshares houses more than 400 homeless and formerly homeless veterans and families each night. But the Bay Area’s affordability crisis has made the work increasingly difficult. Its experience provides valuable insight into the ways in which the approaches for ending homelessness among veterans in high-cost markets may be the same as in low-cost markets but with a longer or more expensive path to results.

High development costs don’t reduce the importance of low-barrier supportive housing

Evidence shows that providing people experiencing homelessness with housing and services, without restrictions on sobriety, substance use, and other conditions, will lead to housing stability and improved outcomes in the long term. Swords to Plowshares knows this firsthand. One of the residents at its Veterans Commons development had been homeless for more than 25 years and suffered from serious mental health and substance abuse issues. Veterans Commons’ low barriers to entry allowed him to qualify for a unit, and he has been stably housed ever since. As Tramecia Garner, associate director of housing and residential programs at Swords to Plowshares, explains, “This veteran is proof that requiring treatment before housing can leave someone homeless for an extensive period of time where they languish and suffer as they continue living on the streets.”

But developing and operating an adequate supply of supportive housing is increasingly challenging in high-cost markets. Between 2000 and 2016, the cost of developing affordable housing in California almost doubled to $425,000 per unit, and affordable housing developments in San Francisco have cost more than $600,000 per unit. The cost for developing supportive housing is even higher given the need for capital and operating support and a guarantee of service funding. As Leon Winston, Swords to Plowshares’ chief operating officer and housing director, explains, “The creation of supportive housing is like building a three-legged stool. You need capital…you also need operating support…[and] the third leg is a source of funding for support services that are needed to help disabled extremely low–income veterans stay housed.” Securing adequate funding for all three components is critical for supportive housing programs to remain viable. When development alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit, funding for the other essential elements may suffer.

In demand-heavy markets, landlord incentives may not be enough

Eviction prevention services and rapid re-housing ensure that veterans at risk of homelessness avoid homelessness or quickly get off the streets and into housing. Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) has provided rapid re-housing resources for 220,000 veterans since 2012, and Swords to Plowshares relies on SSVF funding. But this funding is not enough. Jacob Donnelly, director of supportive services at Swords to Plowshares, explains that “the current sky-high costs of housing, extremely low vacancy rate, and continuous onslaught of highly paid employees in tech and other similar sectors has severely impacted the ability of our veterans to compete for the housing units that are available in the region. For example, offering a double security deposit to help veterans with bad credit satisfy a landlord’s concerns used to be more effective at securing housing opportunities. In many cases now, though, that’s the standard cost of doing business for anyone moving into housing in the region.” These market changes have made it increasingly difficult for Swords to Plowshares to implement rapid re-housing in the neighborhoods where veterans have lived for years.

Research demonstrates that the SSVF program is effective, but there is not enough evidence on whether this holds true in high-cost markets. Swords to Plowshares’ experience suggests there may be a need to expand the amount and flexibility of SSVF funding. For example, providing landlords incentives to hold units for qualifying veterans, or realigning the subsidy term to match the lease term (which is typically one year), could make SSVF funding more effective in rental markets like San Francisco. Testing ways to expand SSVF funding could strengthen the knowledge of how SSVF and other rapid re-housing efforts support and help more homeless veterans obtain and maintain housing without having to rely on permanent subsidies from federal programs like Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.

Community collaboration leads to success

Housing stability is a challenge in tight rental markets where waiting lists are long, vouchers expire, and the need is high. Coordination and collaboration allow Swords to Plowshares and other homelessness prevention organizations to mitigate housing supply constraints and continue supporting veterans in exiting homelessness despite the housing crisis.

On the city level, mechanisms such as the coordinated entry system can provide a centralized place to better understand veterans’ housing needs. Through this system, San Francisco provides referrals to housing providers, ensuring that the veterans with the most needs are given priority. The goal of the process is to create structure and stability for service providers and allow more veterans to access the care they need. This helps streamline the housing pipeline for homeless veterans, which is essential in a competitive housing market.

Beyond coordinated services, Swords to Plowshares offers a Combat to Community veteran cultural competence training and other programs to create a broader community of support for veterans among employers, service providers, policymakers, and civilians. As Amy Fairweather, policy director at Swords to Plowshares, describes, “The community has been extremely supportive; we have a number of formal collaborative partnerships regarding housing, aging, mental health, and employment. It is very gratifying to work directly with our community partners, share our respective strengths and knowledge, and allow for warm handoffs, referrals, and advice from colleagues.”

Ending homelessness requires an integrated approach. In high-cost markets, partnerships may provide at least a partial counterbalance to the difficulties created by housing shortages. By strengthening local and national partnerships, housing and service providers may be able to build sufficient scaffolding to protect vulnerable veterans and expand a network of champions to allow evidence-based solutions, like rapid re-housing, Housing First, and permanent supportive housing, to take root at the scale that local communities need—even if the need is severe.

This feature is made possible through contributions and quotes from Jacob Donnelly, director of supportive services; Tramecia Garner, associate director of housing and residential programs; Leon Winston, chief operating officer and housing director; Amy Fairweather, policy director; and Kevin Miller, communications manager, at Swords to Plowshares. We are grateful for their insights and valuable contributions.

Photo by Edith Pifpaf/Shutterstock