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The promising national discussion on ending veteran homelessness

The U. S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs recently held a hearing on ending veteran homelessness. Although the number of veterans experiencing homelessness nationwide has decreased by 33 percent since 2010, discussion revolved around the still high numbers associated with veteran homelessness. Twelve percent of adults experiencing homelessness in the United States are veterans, and of these individuals, 64 percent suffer from a drug addiction, 45 percent from a mental illness and 65 percent from a chronic illness.Complicating the effort are the subgroups of unhoused veterans who need targeted care and experience barriers to accessing housing or services.

  • Female veterans require unique services because 30 to 40 percent of them have dependent children, and some of them have experienced military-related sexual violence.
  • The nation’s 2,000 Native American veterans, many of them living on reservations, can be difficult to serve because they may not have easy access to a Veterans Affairs (VA) service facility.
  • Identifying veterans who might be at risk for homelessness can be difficult because individuals are often reluctant to seek help due to the stigma associated with homelessness.
  • According to Jennifer Ho, senior advisor to HUD’s Secretary Castro, in many cities, a lack of affordable housing means that a housing voucher does not guarantee a place to live and it can be difficult to serve veterans who aren’t in the habit of accessing services at a VA facility.
  • Federal agencies that serve veterans experiencing homelessness may use different guidelines to define homelessness, meaning that participation in one service may disqualify them from another.
  • Different federal programs vary in their approach to individuals with discharge statuses that are “other-than-honorable” (OTH). Many veterans with OTH statuses are not eligible to receive services from the VA. As noted in the testimony given by advocacy organization Swords to Plowshares, many of these veterans are unable to receive the help that they need.
Regardless of these complications, a number of cities have made great strides in ending homelessness among veterans. When senators asked for examples of success, many advocates pointed to Houston, Salt Lake City and New Orleans. These cities have successfully reached functional zero and have systems in place to house homeless veterans within 30 days or less. A variety of innovative approaches came up in the discussion including converting vacant housing to house veterans or engaging veteran landlords in an effort to provide housing to more homeless veterans. Advocates also promoted greater collaboration between the agencies serving veterans (including HUD, the Department of Defense, Veterans’ Affairs and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness). These agencies need to share metrics for determining the success of programs and treat these programs as a continuum.

Finally, advocates like Senior Advisor Ho underscored the importance of maintaining funding for the HOME program. HOME is vitally important because it can fund the construction of new affordable housing and may be in jeopardy according to recent congressional budgetary proposals. Despite the challenges facing the effort, the promising examples of recent success show that ending veteran homelessness can be done through a mix of collaboration, resources and programs.

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