Ending Veteran Homelessness: A Goal with a Plan
The Obama administration’s campaign to end veteran homelessness involves unprecedented cross-agency collaboration, a willingness to embrace new methods, and substantial resources. It’s a combination that just might work.
By Catherine Seif Posted on February 10, 2015
The nation is on the cusp of an unprecedented accomplishment: it is poised to end homelessness among military veterans by the end of 2015.
What gives me confidence that we will achieve this goal? We have already seen a 33 percent decrease in veteran homelessness since 2010. We were down to 49,933 homeless veterans on a single night in January 2014. Perhaps more significant are the multiple communities across the country, both big and small, that are poised to end veteran homelessness sooner than the end of 2015.
The news is exhilarating, but work remains to be done—nearly 50,000 veterans still need a place to call home. What can we learn from the progress that has already been made to help us create the template for ending all homelessness?
To start, we know that the effort to end veteran homelessness required input and dedication from all levels of government. The nationwide drive to end homelessness among veterans began with a goal and a plan to reach that goal.
An Administration Makes a Commitment
In December 2009, then–Secretary Eric Shinseki of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—a former United States Army chief of staff, West Point graduate, and Vietnam veteran—announced that the Obama administration’s VA was setting the goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015. This goal was further codified in the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’s Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, released in 2010. This goal was and is an audacious one. It is the first time any administration has not only vowed to end homelessness among veterans, but also set a deadline.
Opening Doors is well-detailed, laying out objectives the VA must accomplish to meet the 2015 goal. In addition to strong partnership and coordination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the VA must partner with community- and faith-based organizations, and supplement and expand the range of interventions available to homeless veterans, ensuring that these interventions are both outcome oriented and data driven.
A key tenet of the plan is the concept of Housing First: an approach to ending homelessness that centers on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible, and then providing services as needed. The Housing First philosophy first emerged in the early 2000s, but it was a radical concept for many in the homeless assistance community, including veteran providers, who were focused largely on transitional housing that often required veterans to “earn” their way into housing through treatment or other programs. However, Opening Doors made Housing First a cornerstone of the effort.
Another milestone in ending homelessness occurred in 2009 with the passage and signing into law of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. This bill reauthorized and revamped HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program, the largest federal program addressing homelessness. The HEARTH Act emphasized data-driven targeting, and with its passage, HUD personnel and service providers reoriented themselves to focus on outcomes and ensuring they were only funding successful programs. As a result, HUD’s homeless assistance programs became more efficient and effective.
The VA began to look at the communities that were getting the best results and worked to match those strategies in their own program. At the same time, HUD-funded providers were also trying to be more performance based, and this outcomes-oriented mindset began to take hold among veteran service providers, VA’s central offices, and even VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) nationwide.
It was clear that the plan to end veteran homelessness was going to have a tremendous impact on the VA and its partners.
Building a Spectrum of Services
In the late 1980s, shelters and domiciliary programs (rehabilitation housing for economically disadvantaged veterans begun following the Civil War) were not fully addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness. As a result, both HUD and the VA expanded their services to include transitional housing programs. These programs provide services to tenants living in temporary units, with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. Begun in 1992, the Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program, the VA’s main transitional housing program, stood, along with other temporary housing approaches, for over 15 years as the VA’s main response to the burgeoning number of veterans falling into homelessness.
As the number of homeless veterans being served by GPD and HUD’s permanent supportive housing programs increased, it became clear that transitional housing alone would not address the housing needs of many of the most vulnerable veterans.
Following the success of a pilot program, in 2008 Congress authorized a joint effort through HUD and the VA to serve chronically homeless veterans, taking the program to scale. (Chronic homelessness indicates long and/or repeated incidences of homelessness, coupled with a physical and/or mental disability, including substance abuse.) This joint effort became the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program. It couples Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers delivered through HUD’s public housing authorities with case management and supportive services through VAMCs. To date, there have been approximately 70,000 HUD-VASH vouchers issued, resulting in marked decreases in chronically homeless veterans. Some communities have even declared an end (or near-end) to chronic homelessness among their homeless veterans. (See pages 18-21 for some stories from specific communities.)
Over the course of the next few years, chronic homelessness overall declined. Yet the size of both the veteran and general homeless populations remained unchanged and even grew among a different cohort: economically homeless individuals and families. Economically homeless families and individuals are homeless for largely financial reasons, and generally for shorter periods of time. Rapid re-housing, which is short-term financial assistance coupled with services to quickly address homelessness, was seen as a way to tackle this problem. HUD first began funding rapid re-housing programs in 2008 through a demonstration project. The HEARTH Act and the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (see page 28) of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“the stimulus”) further cemented rapid re-housing as a crucial intervention for the majority of people experiencing homelessness. By the release of Opening Doors in 2010, rapid re-housing was established as a primary intervention for families and individuals.
Despite this, VA homeless assistance programs consisted only of permanent supportive housing (HUD-VASH) and transitional housing (GPD). In light of the continued economic slowdown and high unemployment rates among veterans, the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the growing number of young female veterans with dependents, it was becoming increasingly clear to the homeless assistance community that they needed a different kind of intervention for these large contingents of veterans.
In 2011, the VA received funding for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. Similar to the way in which HUD-VASH was modeled off successful permanent supportive housing programs within HUD, SSVF was modeled after HUD’s rapid re-housing and prevention programs—with some crucial differences largely centered upon the scope of services available through it. A grant program administered by nonprofits, SSVF allows grantees to provide short- to medium-term rental assistance and supportive services that will help veterans and their families stabilize in housing.
The implementation of SSVF completed the array of services available to homeless veterans, reducing strain on HUD’s homeless assistance program and allowing the VA to double down on its commitment to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Friends in High Places
The current administration has been the driving force behind the national effort to address veteran homelessness, but it has not been alone. In addition to hundreds of grantees, VAMCs, and Continuums of Care (regional or local planning bodies that coordinate HUD housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals), the goal to end veteran homelessness has received and continues to receive support from the highest levels of government. In its fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, the administration announced a “Zero Tolerance for Homeless Veterans” initiative, calling for Congress to increase the VA homeless assistance budget by more than 50 percent, to nearly $1 billion. A Republican House and a Democratic Senate approved the budget request in a bipartisan fashion.
Three years later, the administration requested Congress fund VA homeless assistance programs at $1.6 billion in FY 2015. While the funding negotiations have not been finalized, it seems likely—amid another year of budget difficulties and bargains—that funding for homeless veteran programs will remain at historic levels or even receive a significant funding boost. Through sequestration and numerous entrenched budget battles, VA programs as a whole have been above the political and budgetary frays. Continued congressional support for the goal of ending veteran homelessness has been an important factor in the success so far.
In addition to congressional support, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden launched Joining Forces in 2011, an initiative to connect veterans with employment and provide support for veteran families. Through the administration’s Mayor’s Challenge effort, Mrs. Obama has pushed communities across the country to commit to ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015—or sooner.
There has been a groundswell of support among citizens of all backgrounds and beliefs to ensure homes for those who have served their country. This support will continue to play a significant role as we get closer to meeting our goal.
Obstacles to Tackle
Funding, support, and the right interventions have been integral to our success thus far, but—as with any ambitious goal—there are challenges ahead. In addition to external factors, such as new military excursions, the continued wind down of existing conflicts, and persistently high unemployment among young veterans, there are problems within the homeless assistance system. Many obstacles in our path to ending veteran homelessness will vary by state and community, but there are some overarching difficulties that we must work to address as a nation.
For example, the numerous resources made available to veterans through VAMCs, ranging from health care to housing, are only available to eligible veterans. The complicated rules that govern discharge status and resulting eligibility are excluding numerous veterans who may have served for many years, including in a combat theater of operations, but who received a less than honorable discharge.
Some communities are working to ensure that veterans who are ineligible for VA homeless assistance are being prioritized for assistance through HUD and other federal and local programs. This method ensures that all veterans in that community will receive assistance, regardless of discharge, but these programs are already strained and under-funded. While there have been significant increases in funding for VA homeless assistance programs in recent years, the resources available to this ineligible cohort are severely limited. To ensure all veterans receive the necessary housing supports, we must expand eligibility for the VA’s homeless assistance programs so they don’t follow the strict rules that govern eligibility for full-fledged VA health care services or work with homeless veterans to upgrade discharge statuses.
The problem of homelessness does not belong to the VA, HUD, or any other federal department. Ending homelessness among veterans will require a holistic approach from the federal government, as is in progress, and coordination and cooperation from those working on the ground to address the issue. Some communities report great success at this, but unfortunately, in many communities there has been little contact between HUD homeless assistance providers and local VA homeless assistance programs. In some cases, this has led to ineffective targeting, inefficient case management, and homeless veterans bouncing between systems with little guidance. There has been significant improvement in recent years; however, this disconnect remains a significant issue.
Many VAMCs would benefit from a closer working relationship with their Continuum of Care (CoC) counterparts, particularly when it comes to Housing First–centered case management. Case management through the VA is not always “housing-centered,” but is instead more focused on addressing a veteran’s other needs prior to working with them to find housing. Housing First–focused case management would ensure VA case managers were working with housing authorities and other partners to house veterans before attempting to solve other problems. Better integration and communication between these two systems also would also ensure that limited resources are targeted and used properly, and that all veterans eligible for VA resources receive them. It is imperative that CoCs work with their VAMCs to create an open dialogue about what is working and what needs to change.
Finally, continued funding for these programs will be crucial. While Congress has largely supported the administration’s requests for funding, it remains unclear how the federal budget will progress in a changing political landscape. Already, some lawmakers have hesitated to continue providing funding increases for these programs. Advocacy and education will be necessary to ensure these resources are maintained and expanded to house homeless veterans and prevent future veteran homelessness.
The VA homeless assistance system has adapted and evolved rapidly in recent years, as described earlier, and these trends will continue. As the VA continues to develop and advance its homeless assistance programs, it is focusing on refining the Grant and Per Diem program. Since transitional housing is by definition impermanent, veterans residing in GPD programs are still considered to be homeless. There are thousands of GPD beds across the country; until the use for those beds is reimagined and redefined, we must consider those veterans occupying these units as homeless. The national conversations around the evolution of GPD have begun, but we must enhance our efforts to permanently house these veterans before the end of 2015.
The Way Forward
The year is well underway, but the pieces are largely in place for us to reach our goal. The end of homelessness among veterans raises other questions: What does “ending homelessness” look like? What happens to homeless assistance programs when there are no longer veterans to serve?
As the number of eligible veterans dwindles, communities that have made great progress in ending veteran homelessness now must grapple with allocating their existing resources. Funding allocations are based on a variety of factors, not need alone. This means that communities with drastically reduced numbers of homeless veterans are still likely to receive funding and voucher allocations, but may not necessarily have people to serve with them. Localities that have near-zero chronically homeless veterans are considering the feasibility of reallocating HUD-VASH vouchers to communities with higher need.
Since homelessness emerged as a widespread problem, we have yearned for the day when we could end this shameful blight on this great nation. It was not until recently that we had to question what an end to this issue would look like, for all homeless people or even for a certain subpopulation. We are now grappling with a concept called “functional zero,” or ending all long-term homelessness among veterans and ensuring that no veteran is homeless for longer than a short period of time. It will be exceedingly difficult to prevent homelessness for all veterans in perpetuity; however, a functional zero system is one in which people who lose their housing will be back in housing within 30 days.
In addition, at functional zero, the homeless assistance system will be sized to effectively serve anyone who has a housing crisis and needs the assistance. This will require renewed resources focused on keeping veterans and their families in housing, which would include significant improvements in the experience many soldiers undergo when transitioning from active duty to veteran status, as well as employment and health outcomes for new and old veterans alike. As these problems are largely beyond the scope of the VA homeless assistance system, this systemic change will require the VA, the Department of Defense, and numerous other federal and local entities shift the way veterans are integrated back into civilian life.
Implications for Ending All Homelessness
Ensuring our nation’s heroes have a place to call home is a strong motivator, but the implications of ending homelessness among one subpopulation go far beyond housing every veteran. Reaching functional zero for veterans will prove that ending homelessness is achievable. The lessons are clear: with the necessary resources funding the right interventions targeted toward the right people, we can end homelessness. We know what works and how to do it. In many cases, minor tweaks to systems and an influx of resources will affect all people experiencing homelessness.
The efforts to address veteran homelessness from the administration, Congress, and communities across the country provide a valuable blueprint to work toward a day where no man, woman, or child in America is homeless. The successes we have had in housing our veterans should be seen not only as a guide, but also as a beacon of hope that we will achieve an end to homelessness.
Although much progress must be made before military veterans reach parity in employment, health, and other factors, there is renewed hope that the blight of homeless veterans will soon shame this country no longer. If these successes continue and we work collectively to overcome lingering challenges, we will end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Catherine Seif is a program and policy analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
- “Housing First,” by Nan Roman
and Lisa Stand, Shelterforce,