Defined under the McKinney-Vento Act, a homeless person is an individual or family lacking fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Due in large part to the coordinated efforts at both the state and federal levels, the definition was expanded via regulation in 2012 to include those fleeing domestic violence or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions.
Homelessness does not discriminate, nor does it grant immunity to any subset of the veteran population. Veterans, specifically, face unique challenges when it comes to finding safe and affordable housing. Not only must they navigate the affordable housing market, they often face economic hardships, multiple and extended deployments, and, in some cases, mental illnesses that hinder one’s ability to find the assistance they need.
Veterans returning from deployments in the Middle East–such as Afghanistan and Iraq–often confront the invisible wounds of war that include traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which correlate to homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) developed a Point-in-Time Count that measures/estimates the homeless population in any given area. In 2019, the snapshot of veteran homelessness showed that since 2010 the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has declined by nearly 50%. While great strides have been taken, the numbers for 2019 show that 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness in 2019, compared to 37,878 in January 2018.
Source: 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress
Three states (Delaware, Connecticut and Virginia) and 78 communities have virtually eradicated veteran homelessness within their borders. Efforts within the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), Department of Labor and HUD, coupled with the on-the-ground expertise of state legislatures and state agencies, have been successful. However, complacency is not an option, especially as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected nearly every aspect of life, and threatens to hinder the progress of efforts combating veteran homelessness.
Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to limited access to health care, pre-existing conditions or lack exposure to cleaner environments for prevention and control measures.
Homelessness spans across age, gender, ethnicity and race, and significant strides have been taken to mitigate and ultimately decrease the number of homeless veterans across our communities. The change in demographics serves as a constant reminder that considerable progress has been made.
Approximately 9 out of 10 veterans experiencing homelessness are men. While this number seems statistically significant, the total number of male homeless veterans declined by 3%. In contrast, the number of female homeless veterans rose 3%.
The number of veterans experiencing homelessness declined by 4% overall between 2018 and 2019, which correlates to a 6% decline in unsheltered veterans. During that same time, the number of African American veterans who were homeless remained roughly the same—however the total number of unsheltered African Americans rose by 4%.
Source: 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress
Since the beginning of the 2019-2020 legislative sessions, state legislatures from coast to coast have introduced 79 bills that directly relate to the homelessness of veterans. Specifically, state legislation predominately focused around home loans, rental protections and adapted housing. Of the 79 bills introduced, 17 were fully enacted into law.
The Maryland General Assembly passed HB 12, which expands the eligibility for veterans to reside at veterans’ homes supervised by the VA. Eligibility was expanded to include veterans who received an honorable discharge from active service with a uniformed service.
In Washington state, HB 1754 allows religious organizations to host homeless individuals on outdoor encampments. The bill decrees and prohibits counties from specifically limiting a religious organization’s availability to host on its property while reducing or waiving permitting fees.
Through the VA’s approach of using various evidence-based practices such as Housing First, Getting to Outcomes and the Maintaining Independence and Sobriety Through Integration Outreach and Networking: Veterans Editions, the VA has been able to target veterans who struggle with comorbidities to assistance them in obtaining a reliable and safe roof over their heads. These practices are then transferred into programs such as the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers, Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program and Supportive Services for Veteran Families.
The HUD-VASH program, a collaborative program between the HUD and the VA, categorically emphasizes the “Housing First” model. In this program, veterans are given a housing choice voucher which is then paired with the VA case management and supportive service to help the veteran sustain the house and support in recovery from physical or mental health problems.
Under the Grants and Per Diem (GPD) Program, grants are awarded by the VA to community-based agencies to create transitional housing programs to offer per diem payments. The goal of the GPD program is to provide supportive housing and help homeless veterans achieve residential stability and hone their skills to better prepare themselves for a successful career.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these programs have been especially constrained. However, included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, funding was given to HUD and the VA to better equip state and local officials in responding to the virus. Specifically, $300 million was appropriated in three critical areas:
- $202 million has been appropriated to provide emergency housing and homelessness prevention assistance to low-income veteran families to mitigate the anticipated wave of evictions and the potential homelessness as a result of unemployment. Such funds will also go to assist the HUD-VASH program to provide veterans a safe house to isolate themselves from the virus.
- $88 million has been appropriated to the GPD program, which allows the VA to waive per diem limits during the COVID-19 crisis and to help grantees provide all emergency housing and supportive services, which includes emergency placement for those who need to be isolated for their safety and that of others.
- $10 million will be appropriated to provide emergency shelter and supportive services, including placement in hotel rooms for veterans needing emergency shelter. Such shelter will be paired with care, treatment and rehabilitative services.
During this time, agencies are making it a priority to streamline procedures to allow for better and quicker access into the system. For example, the HUD-VASH program is looking to improvise its procedures and systems to help veterans more quickly secure safe housing.
The program is limiting face-to-face contact between staff and veterans, fast-tracking the process since many veterans are living in temporary VA treatment facilities while they wait for their permanent home. Additionally, the program is facilitating virtual meetings and tours with landlords.
Resources are available in each state to aid veterans and their families experiencing homelessness.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued interim guidance for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic.
- The VA has also published its annual Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups Survey to assess local challenges and unmet needs among veterans. The information submitted will help the VA improve its deliverability of resources and assistance to each VA homeless service in communities.
- In addition, veterans at risk of homelessness or who are actively experiencing homelessness are urged to call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838 and/or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 to learn about all the programs designed to help.