Phoenix, Arizona recently announced that it has ended homelessness among chronically homeless veterans. This milestone is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it shows that evidence-based policy works.
Through Housing First and the Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary General Eric Shinseki and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, with funding from Congress, have provided communities around the country with proven and effective tools. Phoenix’s success also supports President Obama’s goal of ending homelessness among all veterans by 2015.
Just days after Phoenix, Salt Lake City announced it had reached the same milestone. There is much to celebrate, and I’m confident that more good news is forthcoming as communities work to house 57,849 homeless veterans nationwide. But to end homelessness among all veterans, policymakers will have to reach far beyond the chronically homeless, to house those who have suffered recent housing loss, and prevent former soldiers from becoming homeless in the first place.
This won’t be easy.
We cannot prevent homelessness and promote long-term housing stability without addressing housing affordability. Too many of our nation’s veterans, particularly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are struggling to pay the rent.
Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show that there is a large pool of veterans at risk of homelessness: Approximately 1.5 million households headed by a veteran spend more than half of their income on housing costs. Recent veterans with low incomes—those who have been deployed abroad since September 11, 2001, serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND)—are more likely than those who served during earlier wars and conflicts to experience rent burden. Eighty-seven percent of extremely low-income OEF/OIF/OND veterans, compared to 70 percent of extremely low-income veterans from earlier operations, are paying way too much for rent—more than 50 percent of their income. (It’s important to note that among low-income households in both groups, OEF/OIF/OND and those who served in earlier wars and conflicts, an overwhelming majority is paying too much for rent.) Over time, these rent burdens are not sustainable, leaving many veterans at grave risk for eviction and homelessness.
Through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF), VA offers funding to communities to assist those at the front door of shelters. And five communities, in collaboration with HUD and the Department of Labor, launched the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program (VHPD), a pilot project.
While these programs have shown promising early results, they have not yet been fully evaluated and are not enough to keep nearly 1.5 million at-risk veterans stably housed. One open question is whether these homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing programs, which are narrowly targeted and provide short-term subsidy or just enough financial assistance to help veterans pay missed rent payments, will help stabilize their housing over the long term.
When it comes to homelessness prevention, we already know that housing vouchers work. However, due largely to long waiting lists and demand that far outpaces supply, veterans have trouble accessing the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In the past, I’ve proposed a housing voucher program designed for veterans that links housing subsidies with employment reintegration, particularly those who are un- or underemployed and have had difficulty transitioning to civilian employment. This would take a significant investment from Congress, but I think the evidence clearly shows that without it, we’ll continue to celebrate important milestones but cannot reach the president’s worthy and honorable goal.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.