Tens of thousands of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan having returned home in recent years to a tough job market and increasingly expensive housing rates.
First lady Michelle Obama has put the issue of homeless veterans high on her agenda, saying in a July speech: “As Americans, the idea that anyone who has worn our country’s uniform spends their nights sleeping on the ground should horrify us.”
Since 2010, the five-year program has seen homelessness among veterans decline 33 percent to about 49,933, according to the January count of homeless veterans on a given night conducted by hundreds of teams in communities nationwide.
“That kind of decrease is just unprecedented and it happened during a really challenging time in our economy,” said Vince Kane, director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. “And these programs have been the game changers in ending veteran’s homelessness.”
The VA committed more than $1 billion in 2014 to strengthen programs that prevent and end homelessness among veterans, according to the agency.
HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a telephone interview that much of the success is owed to a “housing-first strategy” that focuses on providing veterans with a place to live and then offering services that help them with drug abuse, job searches or mental health.
The VA used to insist on health services first before offering housing. The agency previously required homeless veterans to be successfully treated for substance abuse and mental ailments before being given apartments.
“Housing first means we don’t make people jump through hoop after hoop to prove they can have a safe place to live,” Castro said. “We give them the safe housing right away and then work with the VA to get them back on their feet. It’s a model that really works.”
That model has worked particularly well for female veterans and those with children, he said.
The assistance announced on Wednesday is provided through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which combines rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by VA.
Specifically, HUD is awarding $57 million to support 8,276 tenant-based vouchers for rental units in the private market, and $5 million for 730 project-based vouchers for existing units or new construction in specific developments.
Obama’s 2015 budget proposal asks for an additional $75 million in vouchers to serve veterans experiencing homelessness. The goal is to issue 10,000 new vouchers a year, with annual admissions usually including some turnover of existing vouchers.
Under its anti-homelessness program, the VA is awarding grants to private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives that provide services to low-income veteran families living in – or transitioning to – permanent housing.
The community organizations provide a range of services that promote housing stability among eligible families (those making less than 50 percent of the area median income).
Still, advocates for homeless veterans say the challenge is huge and meeting the 2015 goal will be tough.
The challenge includes a rising number of veterans who received VA treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, which is over 1.3 million, up 400,000 since 2006. In addition, an average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
“These two programs together are really good news, and the progress has been really phenomonal,” said Baylee Crone, executive director of the non-profit National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “There’s so much work to do but we are hopeful. Today, outreach people in the community were already getting on the streets talking to veterans about the availablity of resources. So there’s good energy out there. And we feel like we are getting there.”