Without More Affordable Housing, Veteran Homelessness Will Return

Federal funding to end veteran homelessness has had a real impact, but a nationwide shortage of affordable housing could make its success temporary.

In 2010, the Obama administration announced a Federal Plan to End Homelessness. Developed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the plan laid out an ambitious agenda focused on addressing the causes of homelessness. Called Opening Doors, the plan set four specific goals, one of which was to prevent and end homelessness among veterans in five years.

In November 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in its Point-in-Time (PIT) count of the homeless population, reported that 57,849 veterans were homeless on a given night in January 2013—a 24 percent decrease since 2009. By January 2014, two cities—Phoenix and Salt Lake City—had declared that they had ended chronic homelessness, a condition defined by HUD as presence of a disabling condition and three or more periods of homelessness within a year, for veterans.

These reports are striking, but should be viewed with caution. To start, the count is far from scientific, and has been criticized by me as well as others for gaps that include people in facilities who will have nowhere to go upon release and the “hidden homeless,” or individuals who are doubled up in homes or couch surfing.

Indeed, the veterans’ numbers may merit even more reservation: according to the plan and its subsequent updates, the baseline numbers against which progress is measured have undergone several revisions. HUD’s original 2009 PIT count number of 59,390 homeless veterans was later adjusted to 75,609; however, the fact sheet currently linked by the VA on its website states that in 2009 there were 107,000 homeless veterans—the number the plan stated it would adopt as its baseline. Additionally, the two cities’ results concern only the subpopulation of chronically homeless veterans.

The Good News

Despite these caveats, important progress is being made.

Since 2008, a total of 58,155 Housing Choice Vouchers targeted for supportive housing for homeless veterans have been distributed; significantly, $425 million in new funding was appropriated by Congress to fund these vouchers, created under a program known as HUD-VASH (HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). Funding continued after Opening Doors was adopted, and the HUD-VASH program was made part of the plan.

In addition, in 2010, the VA established the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, with a goal of promoting housing stability for very low-income veteran families who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. Funded through the VA, the program supports housing as well as an array of services including access to VA health care, legal assistance, credit and housing counseling, short-term financial assistance to cover rent, moving expenses, security and utility deposits, child care, and transportation. Between 2010 and 2012, the VA awarded $181 million under this program; in 2013, it increased funding significantly for operations starting in 2014, setting aside $300 million.

Additional funds from the VA budget have supported the goal of ending homelessness for veterans: $571 million from the VA from 2010 to 2012 to fund supportive housing and services, $53 million for residential rehabilitation and treatment services for low income and homeless veterans, $358 million for the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program, and $42 million from 2010 to 2013 for the Healthcare for Re-entry Veterans and Veterans Justice programs, which help prevent homelessness for veterans exiting prison. In addition, longstanding programs—the Grant and Per Diem Program and the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program—continued to fund supportive housing and services and job training, respectively, for homeless veterans.

The lesson here is that, given resources, it is possible to make headway in addressing homelessness for veterans and, presumably, other groups of people. Moreover, results are showing that the focus of those resources—which include the Housing First model as well as comprehensive supportive services—are effective. These are hardly surprising lessons; we know that housing, accompanied by other supportive services, ends homelessness. Perhaps what is more significant is the demonstration of the efficacy of these solutions through federal funding.

The Danger

It seems clear that the initiative is ending homelessness for many specific homeless veterans; however, its goal is to end homelessness for all veterans. Funding is now focused primarily on veterans who are already homeless, less so on those who are at risk. But homelessness is not a static condition that affects a fixed number of people; it is an evolving one that results from the gap between the need for affordable housing and its availability for very low-income people. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the size of that gap is 4.5 million units; and according to HUD, it is growing. HUD’s latest data reports that only 23.8 percent of very low-income households who were eligible for rental housing assistance in 2011 received it, down from 27.4 percent in 2007.

Unless the lack of affordable housing is addressed, some low-income people who are caught in this gap will become homeless, even while homelessness for others is ended. Indeed, a recent surge in homelessness among veterans, most affecting the estimated 2.5 million service men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, has been reported in the media. To be effective, strategies to truly end homelessness for veterans must also include efforts to prevent it by addressing its driving causes. Opening Doors repeatedly notes that “the supply of affordable housing continues to fall far short of the need,” and asks Congress for increased resources.

This in turn raises another question: how do strategies to end homelessness for veterans relate to strategies to end homelessness overall? The VA initiative relies in large part on set-asides from the VA budget; the notable exception is the HUD-VASH program, which was separately funded by Congress. Much of the success in getting additional funding was undoubtedly due to the manifest injustice of veterans experiencing homelessness. But this is tricky: is it really any more just for a child to be homeless? Or a domestic violence survivor? Or a person suffering from mental illness? Is it acceptable for anyone to suffer this terrible deprivation in a country that has the resources to house everyone?

As a matter of political pragmatism, making the case to Congress to fund programs to help homeless veterans may be a wise strategy; it has been a successful one. But it also carries a high risk: what happens if the initiative fails to end veteran homelessness because it has not prevented it? Unless the pool of returning veterans shrinks dramatically—or the supply of affordable housing expands dramatically—this is likely. Thus will the claim that we are on the path to “ending” veteran homelessness—if disproven in this manner—undermine the effort itself, and reinforce the commonly held view that homelessness is, in fact, intractable?

Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released a report finding that the growing lack of affordable rental housing has reached crisis proportions, and that low-income families and individuals are increasingly forced to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table. Speaking at the report’s release, then–HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan spoke passionately about the need for action—and called on housing advocates, providers, and developers to come together to form what he described as a “big tent” to do so.

Ultimately, a big tent that calls for adequate, affordable housing for all—a human right—is what is needed. Segmenting the problem may provide relief for some, and that’s a good thing. But while we may proceed incrementally, to truly end homelessness we must frame the issue and our goals as part of a larger agenda.

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