The shift in approach means that there is “a better opportunity to end veterans’ homelessness by 2015 than at any time in the past,” said Susan Angell, VA’s director of homeless initiatives.
Although many agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have adopted a housing-first strategy, Veterans Affairs had resisted. “Folks were initially concerned about the safety aspects of it,” Angell said. “We wanted to make sure they were clean and sober.”
VA and HUD want enough funds to issue 60,000 vouchers at the rate of 10,000 a year through 2014.
The effort comes as tens of thousands of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are leaving military service and entering an often bleak job market.
“For this new generation of veterans, we are very concerned,” Angell said.
Her agency estimates that more than 20,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been homeless at some point during the past five years and that their numbers are rising.
The agency’s goal is to get all chronically homeless veterans into permanent supportive housing; prevent at-risk veterans from becoming homeless; and get new cases off the streets as soon as possible.
Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at risk of homelessness keep a low profile. “They’d rather be off in the shadows,” said Freddy Cordova, a former Army paratrooper who deployed four times to Iraq and now works with a National Veterans Foundation “street team” that helps homeless veterans in California.
Matt Barnes, a 28-year-old former Marine corporal, is representative of this new generation. On a rainy December night, Barnes slipped quietly into St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington County, gratefully accepting a bowl of meat stew offered by volunteers and taking a seat at a table with other homeless veterans.
Barnes, who wore a bushy black beard and a donated red sweatshirt, has been homeless for two years since losing his job as a waiter and being unable to afford his apartment in Fairfax County. Barnes served five years in the Marine Corps, including a tour in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 during the height of the insurgency, when he regularly risked roadside bombings as a convoy driver.
“It was easier over there,” Barnes mused. He wonders whether he has post-traumatic stress disorder, but he is not interested in going to Veterans Affairs for testing. Instead, Barnes stays on the streets of Northern Virginia, moving between favored locations where he feels safe and grabbing occasional meals and showers in shelters. “I like to be a ghost,” he said.