‘Housing First’ Offers Hope for Homeless Veterans, Others

On this Veterans Day, when we remember those who have served, it is troubling to note that, although veterans make up around 9 percent of our population, they comprise 23 percent of our homeless population and fully a third of our homeless men. In a country that perpetually holds itself up as the best, most compassionate in the world, it is a disgrace that we do so little for this troubled part of our society.

Seventy-six percent of our homeless veterans experience mental illness or alcohol/drug abuse problems, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Homeless veterans tend to be whiter and older than homeless non-veterans, with 46 percent of them white males (compared to 34 percent of white males among non-veteran homeless), and 46 percent also older than age 45 (the number is 20 percent among non-veterans). Nearly half served during the Vietnam War years.

The reasons are complex, says the coalition’s Web site:

“In addition to the complex problems associated with homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment . . . While most homeless people are single, unaffiliated men… most housing money in existing federal homelessness programs is devoted to helping homeless families or homeless women with dependant children.”

Seattle’s “Housing Frist” program is among the nation’s foremost innovators in seeking better ways to address the problems of its homeless population. It sounds so simple, but providing housing has in itself been found to bring major results in decreasing medical and social problems for the homeless while also decreasing public costs. What makes this most basic of all gestures innovative is that in Seattle it is being provided without preconditions, unlike other programs that, in effect, require homeless to first become clean, well and sober as a prerequisite to receiving housing. Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Corporation (DESC) believes that providing housing unconditionally can reduce those problems more effectively and humanely than can providing it only, in effect, as a reward for shaping up.

The evidence is beginning to support them. In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association , researchers at the University of Washington found that Housing First was saving public expenses and reducing drinking among homeless alcoholics. Moreover, other cities are following suit. For more, go here.

Kaid Benfield is director for sustainable communities and smart growth at The Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. He has his own blog on land development and community issues and enjoys contributing here, too, since there is so much common ground.


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