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November 20, 2019

Nation Sees Progress on Housing Vulnerable Vets

New resources and developments help the fight against veterans’ homelessness.

Housing advocates have good news in the fight to help homeless veterans.

“We are dramatically reducing the number of veterans who are homeless and dramatically reducing the amount of time that people stay homeless,” says Nancy Hughes Moyer, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Illinois.

The latest count found fewer veterans living on the streets and sidewalks. However, while new tools have been created to connect veterans with the housing they need, thousands remain homeless or on the brink of becoming homeless, and affordable housing developers still struggle to simply create enough apartments.

“We are getting much better at connecting people to the resources,” says Moyer. “But the shortage of affordable housing is still there.”

Point-in-Time Count Shows Strong Improvement

The number of veterans who are visibly homeless is now a fraction of what it was just 10 years ago, according to the annual point-in-time count, where local communities across the country estimate how many people are experiencing homelessness in shelters, transitional housing programs, and in unsheltered locations on one single night in January.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this year’s estimate found 37,085 veterans experiencing homelessness in January 2019, compared with 37,878 reported in January 2018. HUD estimates among the total number of reported veterans experiencing homelessness in 2019, 22,740 were found in sheltered settings while volunteers counted 14,345 veterans living in places not meant for human habitation.

That’s down from the almost 76,000 homeless vets counted in 2009. Until recently, roughly a third of all homeless people have been veterans, including many of whom are chronically homeless.

“There are still tens of thousands of homeless veterans in the U.S. and many, many more at risk,” says Leon Winston, chief operating officer of Swords to Plowshares, based in San Francisco. Male veterans living in poverty are about twice as likely as nonveteran impoverished males to become homeless, according to HUD data. “For female vets it is three times as likely,” he says.

Recent progress has been the result of a decade of concentrated efforts between federal and local agencies, housing advocates, and private developers. In 2009, the federal government announced a goal to end homelessness among veterans. The effort was coordinated by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which now counts 78 communities and three states that have “ended veteran homelessness.”

The “One List”

The campaign to end homelessness for veterans also created new tools that are helping advocates fight chronic homelessness in general. “Those kinds of partnerships can come up with unique solutions,” says Debbie Burkart, national vice president of supportive housing for the National Equity Fund.

One of the best and most effective tools to fight homelessness has been the “One List” concept. Working with Veterans Affairs (VA), homeless advocates and organizations began to hold “registry weeks” in which organizations would gather as much information as they could about the needs of the veterans they served.

“This evolved into a per-name list,” says Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, based in Washington, D.C.

To connect the resources available with the veterans who can make the best use of them, advocates call for a coordinate assessment system for people struggling with homelessness. The centerpiece is a constantly updated list for each area of all the people who use the services associated with homelessness, from the shelter system to emergency rooms. In addition, Moyer recommends creating a coordinated entry point for people who access local homeless systems.

Having a coordinated assessment system reveals that the diverse group of veterans facing homelessness have a wide variety of needs.

“There was a time when everything that wasn’t permanent housing got labeled as bad,” says Moyer. A single night’s stay at a homeless shelter—provided that the local shelter system has earned a reputation for safety—can provide much-needed help to a veteran in a short-term crisis. A female vet who is the victim of domestic violence and who finally decides to leave her situation may need immediate help and not a referral to move in to permanent housing available in a few weeks. “What you want at the end of that phone call is an address where you can sleep that night,” says Moyer.

“Women veterans, especially those with children, are less likely to find transitional housing options that will accommodate their family so many remain in unhealthy relationships, live with family and friends when they can, while some live in vehicles with their children,” says Tramecia Garner, associate director for housing and residential programs for Swords to Plowshares.

Other programs are better suited to help veterans facing different challenges. Rapid rehousing provides rental support for three to nine months plus a security deposit and moving expenses. Transitional housing provides intensive mental health or substance abuse counseling to people who are not yet ready for permanent supportive housing. Permanent supportive housing is one of the most effective solutions for formerly homeless veterans who have been homeless for at least a year and have a disability—often they are in recovery from mental health or substance abuse issues. However, permanent, supportive housing cannot be the only solution for veterans homelessness—simply because there are not enough units of available.

“All of those resources being available at different times are important,” says Moyer. “We are tailoring the intervention, and we don’t force people to go through interventions that don’t match their situation.”

At the same time, housing developers have been building new affordable apartments as quickly as they are awarded the necessary subsidies.

“There has been a massive focus on production,” says Brian Swanton, president and CEO of Gorman & Co., based in Oregon, Wis. Several states, including Arizona where Gorman develops, offer applications an advantage in the competition for low-income housing tax credits if units have veteran preferences.

The new apartments come in a variety of types to serve a variety of needs. “The demographics of the veterans population has changed. We are seeing a lot more families with children,” says Swanton. “Veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, they find themselves unemployed. There are not a lot of resources for them.”

For example, the 50 affordable rental apartments at Gorman’s Valor on Eighth opened in February 2018 in Tempe, Ariz. It’s not supportive housing with full case management services, and the units are not targeted to house only veterans. Instead the apartments have a “preference” for veterans. About 60% of the families living at the community include veterans. These families can access a variety of services, from after-school programs and job training to financial literacy and mental health services. The community has a waiting list with 1,500 names on it.

Developers also continue to build new permanent supportive housing. For example, the Walter Reed Veteran Apartments recently opened on the former Walter Reed hospital campus in Northwest Washington, D.C. Developed by HELP USA, the project provides permanent supportive housing for 77 formerly homeless veterans. Residents will have access to services such as vocational training, job placement, substance abuse, psychiatric issues, physical health, family relationships, and legal concerns.

“As these wars continue on we need to have housing that is adaptable,” says Winston.

As the population changes, providers are learning to shift from sometimes serving a more chronic homeless population to sometimes helping veterans that may be new to homelessness or just in need of affordable housing.

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