As the country’s biggest cities continue to struggle with issues related to housing and homelessness, there is a silver lining: the number of homeless veterans is steadily decreasing, thanks to an infusion of federal funds and a slew of innovative programs.
In fact, many homeless advocates say that the country is on target to meet the goal of eliminating homelessness among veterans within the next 12 months. Devoting federal dollars to the cause is one of the rare actions to receive bipartisan support, with funding increasing from $900 million in 2013 to $1.4 billion in 2014.
“It seemed like a pretty audacious goal,” said Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But we have the resources adequate to achieve it.”
The infusion of funding has filtered down through local housing agencies and VA branches. They have used the money to devote more time to identifying homeless vets, perform needs assessments, provide housing vouchers and even build housing dedicated to homeless vets.
Local and federal officials in the District broke ground on one such building on Monday. The $33 million apartment building will be located at 1005 North Capital Ave. NE in the NoMa neighborhood and 60 of its 124 units will be dedicated to house formerly homeless vets. At the ceremony, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) noted the project will be a bold step to help drive down the number of homeless vets in the District. The latest homeless census counted 406 veterans in the District, a 21 percent decrease compared with 2011.
“We know exactly how to solve veterans homelessness,” said Jake Maguire, spokesman for Community Solutions, which is working with the District to construct the building. “You can’t say that about every social problem.”
The success that the District has enjoyed in reducing veterans’ homelessness is a bright spot in its tough battle against homelessness. Since 2011, while veterans homelessness has plummeted, the number of homeless residents in families increased 41 percent.
That difference is mirrored, though less exaggerated, across the country. In the last year, according to HUD data, the number of veterans decreased 10 percent in major cities. The number of residents in homeless families went up by about a half percent.
So why has the country been so successful in bringing down homelessness with one segment of the population and not with another? It boils down to two things: morality and money.
More organizations are willing to help veterans because “there’s a tremendous amount of public and political will to do this because we believe we owe veterans for serving our country,” Roman said. Officials are less likely to question whether a vet is relying too much on the government for support. Compare that to a single mother who did not finish college and has struggled to find work.
The broad support has led to the federal government devoting $75 million this year to distribute 10,000 new housing vouchers for vets anywhere in the country. Contrast that with the District, where there is a years-long wait for families to receive a similar voucher, which is perpetually losing value as rents continue to skyrocket.
Veterans are also more likely to have a disability, Roman said, which would qualify them for a different type of housing support. Those with disabilities are more likely to receive “permanent supportive housing,” which places the homeless individual in an apartment. They can stay as long as they want with such a voucher, so long as they interact with case managers and receive treatment.
It is a more stable type of housing than what’s typically offered to homeless families, who usually receive a voucher that lasts just a few months. In the District, many homeless families are skeptical about taking such a voucher because they fear they will be back on the street once it expires.
Among advocates, the larger hope is that ending veterans homelessness will motivate federal and local agencies to devote even more attention and money to ending family homelessness. Speaking at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness this summer, First Lady Michelle Obama call ending veterans’ homelessness the “proof-point” that it is possible to house everyone in the country.
Said Maguire: “What works to end veteran homelessness is, by and large, the same as what will work to end other kinds of homelessness– a connection to permanent housing as soon as possible with the basic supportive services that people need to thrive.”