Over the past four months lawmakers and veterans’ advocates in the District and across the country have celebrated notable successes in reducing homelessness among veterans and their families.
Since the Obama administration first set a national goal to end veteran homelessness in 2015, the fight, led on the ground by countless community organizations, has captivated the nation. And the list of accomplishments has grown steadily. The Department of Veterans Affairs dedicated more than $500 million in fiscal year 2015 to keep veterans and their families off the streets through the principle of “housing first.” Cities are making impressive progress: The number of homeless veterans nationwide plummeted from 195,000 in 2006 to fewer than 50,000 in 2014.
The District itself is more than a third of the way toward eliminating veteran homelessness, an effort punctuated last year by the opening of a new veterans shelter and the groundbreaking for housing that will include permanent space for homeless veterans.
It makes sense to prioritize getting veterans off the street; these individuals served their country, and we owe it to them to ensure that their service is not forgotten in their time of greatest need. At the same time, veterans are not alone in the problems they face, making up only 5 percent of the District’s homeless population. Homelessness is a scourge that darkens lives with little respect for occupation, nationality, race or gender.
Amid the veteran success stories, the setbacks the nation’s capital has faced in reducing overall homelessness are troubling. The Post has reported that “the District’s $124 million homeless operation” is widely viewed “as a system in disarray, failing to help the city’s most vulnerable and wasting money.” The District, on track for its “largest homeless count in decades,” is not alone. Even as the national economy continues its robust recovery, homelessness has risen in nearly as many states as it has fallen. The District is one of many localities that must overcome an inconsistent track record on reducing homelessness among all at-risk populations.
If Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Kristi Greenwalt, the executive director of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, plan to end chronic and family homelessness by 2018, they must look to the national fight to end veteran homelessness as a source of guidance and inspiration.
The District’s efforts currently lack the cohesive vision and narrative that veterans’ advocates have successfully developed to provide a clear direction, a consistent source of motivation and the justification to run roughshod over disparate funding lines and parochial bureaucratic barriers.
Neither money nor time alone will solve the root causes of homelessness in the District. Solving the housing problems of the 7,800 District residents who are homeless on a given night demands a well-coordinated, holistic community effort, something that veterans’ advocates are effectively developing across the country.
Right now, the District is “operating in crisis mode,” according to Greenwalt. District leaders can start turning the page by formally seeking the advice and input of the local governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations and corporations that have banded together on behalf of homeless veterans. They have developed an adaptable model that is creating change on a national scale.
Mayor Bowser and the District do not need to move forward on their own as they seek to fix a still-broken system.
The writer is partner at the Truman National Security Project and vice president of ScoutComms, a benefit corporation advocating for veterans and military families.