Veterans, particularly poor and minority veterans, are 50 percent more likely to become homeless compared to other Americans, according to a report released last week by the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) departments. The report also stated that almost 76,000 veterans were homeless on any given night in 2009, and approximately 136,000 veterans spent at least one night in a shelter. Approximately 44,000 to 66,000 are chronically homeless.
Most often, underlying causes of homelessness among veterans are their socioeconomic backgrounds and "personal factors," as well as a lack of affordable housing, the report said. Veterans' experiences prior to joining the military also have a significant causal relationship, putting those who were physically or sexually abused as children at a greater risk for homelessness. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other brain injuries are also a high contributing factor.
Following the report's publication, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said, "Understanding the nature and scope of veteran homelessness is critical to meeting President Obama's goal of ending veterans' homelessness within five years."
HUD and VA are creating a joint program to target homeless veterans that will provide rental assistance and clinical services to those who are approved. The federal departments will also work with community groups to provide them with resources such as Section 8 vouchers, helping veterans find and keep affordable housing.
The government's plan to address veteran homelessness is "an auspicious beginning," said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit organization that provides services for veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. "It's promising because it gives us the resources we didn't have before." Nearly half of the country's homeless veterans live in California, Texas, New York and Florida. Swords to Plowshares helps more than 2,100 homeless and low-income veterans annually.
The report found that most veterans who used emergency shelter relief only stayed for brief periods of time, with one-third staying less than a week and 84 percent staying less than three months. Ninety-six percent were not part of a family unit.
Colleen Corliss, Swords to Plowshares' communications manager, said the VA and HUD's commitment to working with smaller community groups will be both a challenge and a step in the right direction. "In the past ... a lot of different agencies have operated separate from one another," Corliss said. "For HUD to work with VA and for the medical director of the VA clinics to work with community groups, we can come together as a collective team to produce a plan."
The report marks the first time that the federal government has recognized the epidemic of veteran homelessness as a standalone issue and created a timeline to end it, Corliss said. "It's sort of a landmark in the sense that HUD actually has a plan of action for combating homelessness among veterans."
"The partnerships that [Donovan] is establishing are, so far, really showing that we will see successful outcomes."
HUD's 2012 budget also requested $19.2 billion in federal funds for the Housing Choice Voucher program, which would support all existing mainstream vouchers and provide new ones targeted specifically towards veterans and the chronically homeless.
In addition to housing, HUD and VA emphasized the importance of providing mental health and other clinical services to homeless veterans. "With our federal, state and community partners working together, more veterans are moving into safe housing," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said. "But we're not done yet. Providing assistance in mental health, substance abuse treatment, education and employment goes hand in hand with preventive steps and permanent supportive housing."
One major element missing from the report were the statistics on homeless veterans who stayed out of shelters, Blecker said. Overlooking that information may cause the government to miss an opportunity to examine causes of long-term homelessness. "It's not a count of veterans on the street or in the park," Blecker said. "How many of those homeless veterans are chronically homeless? Those are the folks at greatest risk. If they're not taken immediately off the street, they're going to end up in hospitals and very costly end-of-life situations."
HUD's 2009 count of sheltered veterans is a "reasonable figure" to use as a baseline for the plan, the report stated. "Efforts are underway to improve this count and to enhance identification of Veterans who are homeless.... Despite imperfect counting mechanisms, we know that Veterans account for a larger proportion of those experiencing homelessness compared to the overall population."
Approximately 46 percent of homeless veterans sought out shelter after living on the streets.