Welcoming returning soldiers home -- and in off the streets
By Mary Cunningham Jennifer Biess :: November 11th, 2013
This Veterans Day, as the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps former servicemembers deal with the enduring aftereffects of war, there is at least one aspect of soldier reintegration into civilian life that has improved markedly in recent decades: our system for ensuring veterans are adequately housed.
By contrast with the early eighties, when homelessness among veterans became an issue of national concern, today, assistance for those in danger of losing housing is just a phone call away. The VA staffs the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans (1-877-4AID VET) 24/7. All veterans seeking healthcare from a VA medical center are screened for their risk of homelessness and, when necessary, flagged for assistance. Those in immediate need of housing have access to numerous programs, including transitional and permanent supportive housing, to help them get back on their feet. The VA is also investing money in research and development, through the National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans, to determine how many need housing assistance, risk factors that lead to their loss of shelter, and solutions that can keep them permanently housed.
The current administration’s intentions could not be clearer. In 2009, President Obama made it his goal to end homelessness among former servicemembers by 2015. Since that year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that the number of homeless veterans has decreased 17 percent.
Thanks to these and many other resources, today, the vast majority of soldiers returning from war go on to productive and independent lives as civilians, but a very small percentage consistently remain unstably housed. They represent the last mile in reaching the president’s goal. We know little about the housing solutions that can best assist this group, but a program being piloted in five sites—Austin, TX; San Diego, CA; Tacoma, WA; Tampa Bay, FL; and Utica, NY—is providing clues.
In 2009, Congress funded the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program (VHPD), a joint effort by HUD, the VA, and the US Department of Labor at both the federal and local levels. The VHPD deploys a spectrum of services: homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, time-limited housing search and rental assistance, case management, access to healthcare, and employment services. Across all five sites, the VHPD served 586 veterans and their families (1,366 people in 574 households) in its first year, 245 of which were recent veterans who saw active duty in the post-September 11th era.
HUD is funding an Urban Institute evaluation of the program, and, although it’s too early to draw broad conclusions, the VHPD is showing promising results.
Participants were either homeless (14 percent) or unstably housed (86 percent) when they enrolled in the VHPD. By the end of the first year, 77 percent of those who exited the program (n=950) were stably housed; 2.5 percent were unstably housed; 4 percent were at imminent risk of homelessness; and 1 percent were homeless. (Information was missing for the remaining 15 percent at the time of analysis).
The Urban Institute team that is evaluating the program conducted focus groups with participants and asked them what helped most. “That’s easy. It was the financial help,” said one veteran. “I definitely needed it.” Far and away, participants cited rental assistance as the most popular benefit. “[VHPD] paid my rent arrears,” said another former soldier. “That was the most important. It kept me off the street.”
It is unclear if those who left the VHPD stably housed will remain so without the assistance of an ongoing housing subsidy. This study will pay close attention to that question. What is already clear, however, is that housing assistance is critical: we need more of it to ensure all veterans can sleep securely and enjoy the homecoming they deserve.
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The Assisted Housing Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Assisted Housing Initiative products. The views expressed in this and other Assisted Housing Initiative commentaries are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.
Homeless veteran image from spirit of america / Shutterstock.com