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December 10, 2015

The next step in the plan to end homelessness among veterans

December 9, 2015

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The Obama administration has made progress toward its goal of ending homelessness among veterans. I think this effort will succeed if policymakers continue to invest in the programs that are working, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing and Supportive Services for Veteran Families.

Most of these efforts so far have primarily focused on helping currently homeless veterans get back into stable housing. These are the most urgent cases, so rightly so. However, an estimated 1.5 million veterans have trouble affording housing, leaving them at risk for homelessness.

If we want to end homelessness, we have to prevent it from occurring in the first place. We have to do more to help veterans who are facing eviction and connect them to employment to make sure they can pay for housing in the future. We have a lot to learn about how to do that, but there’s progress on that front, too.

In 2009, in partnership with Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD). This three-year program provided short- to medium-term housing assistance as well as VA case management and links to services in local employment offices. The Urban Institute, with our partner Silber and Associates, conducted an implementation and outcomes evaluation. We saw improvements in housing stability, rates of homelessness, employment, and income.

  • Seventy-five percent of participants who entered the demonstration were at risk of homelessness and 25 percent were homeless. When they exited, 85 percent were stably housed.
  • Six months to a year after exiting, 76 percent of study participants were in their own place, 18 percent lived with someone else, and 6 percent were homeless. About 10 percent experienced homelessness between the baseline and follow-up interviews.
  • Only 25 percent of VHPD clients were working at program entry, compared with 43 percent at the follow-up interview. Average monthly income increased from $1,076 at entry to $1,519 at follow up.

VHPD was a demonstration project, designed to explore a new approach. It was unique because it brought together homeless service providers, VA medical center case workers, and local employment center specialists. VHPD targeted women veterans and those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was small  scale—only five pilot sites and a sample of 509 veterans, and there was no control group to compare results.

Still, the promising nature of these findings merit further research. A few questions remain unanswered: how to target resources most efficiently so that we are reaching those at highest risk, and how much of the positive employment and income results are attributable to the program. 

I recommend further testing VHPD at 10 sites (for a larger sample size), using an experimental design that includes a treatment and control group. The evaluation should include a cost-benefit analysis and an assessment tool to reach those at highest risk. We should also look more closely at the partnerships developed under VHPD between local employment centers and homeless service providers. Finally, the evaluation should be designed to use data to help improve the program as its being implemented. 

Ending homelessness among veterans is possible. Policymakers have invested deeply in supportive housing, rapid re-housing, and some prevention—but not enough to meet the needs of veterans who are struggling to pay rent. The next step in the plan should be to figure out how to target homelessness prevention programs and help veterans increase their incomes through employment programs.

A photo of Jannet Taylor in uniform hangs on the wall of Taylor’s home in Killeen, Texas on October 7, 2015. Taylor found herself on the brink of homelessness in 2012, but with the help of VHPD, she was able to pay her bills and find a stable job. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute

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