Federal uncertainty could threaten progress in combating veteran homelessness
Veteran homelessness has steadily declined over the last several years, falling 46 percent between 2010 and 2016. Federal and local stakeholders found a formula that worked: the Housing First approach and a focus on permanent supportive housing. But skyrocketing housing costs, especially on the West Coast, and uncertainty after recent actions by the administration, have threatened to slow that progress.
On December 6, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that homelessness in the US rose 0.7 percent between 2016 and 2017, and veteran homelessness rose 1.5 percent. This marked the first increase in veteran homelessness since 2010. The agency attributed both increases to steep housing costs in Western California, as the veteran homelessness rate would have fallen 3.2 percent in 2017 if the Los Angeles area were excluded. But that 3.2 percent dip still came nowhere close to the 17 percent decline between 2015 and 2016.
Also on December 6, Politico reported that the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told housing advocates that it planned to reallocate funds from the popular Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which offers housing and case management to homeless veterans with disabilities. Veterans Affairs officials planned to give local VA medical centers the flexibility to convert $460 million allocated to HUD-VASH case managers to use for other services. After strong backlash from veteran and homelessness advocates, the VA is now backtracking on that decision, while still leaving open the possibility that it will make changes to the program in the future.
In the following conversation, Josh Leopold, a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, explains why the HUD-VASH program has been successful, how it could improve, and what the VA’s announcement could mean for combating veteran homelessness.
Were you surprised by the HUD report’s findings about veteran homelessness rising for the first time since 2010?
I wasn’t surprised about the overall increase in homelessness. I was a little bit surprised about the veteran number going up, just because there’s been so much focus on ending veteran homelessness. So many resources invested in that goal, both in terms of new HUD-VASH vouchers as well as homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing services through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. There is also a lot of philanthropic support as well as state and local government momentum for ending veteran homelessness. The number had been going down precipitously, so it was disappointing that it went up.
What did you think of the VA’s original plan to change the funding structure for the HUD-VASH program?
The administration proposed turning funding for VA case managers into a block grant and allowing each VA medical center to determine how to use those resources. That would basically end the program because the public housing agencies wouldn’t have any guarantee they would have referrals from eligible veterans and case management for them. A lack of adequate resources for case management is already a problem in the program. The proposal would effectively end the HUD-VASH program in a lot of communities. The administration claimed that this move would give flexibility back to local communities, but the VA already has a full suite of health care– and housing-related programs for homeless veterans. I can’t think of what additional flexibility they’d need that would outweigh the need for this program.
Why has HUD-VASH been so successful?
HUD-VASH is evidence based. In the homelessness world, one thing we know for sure is that permanent supportive housing reduces homelessness, even for people with very acute mental and physical health conditions. The program increasingly targeted people who needed it most. Targeting it to the chronically homeless was key to its success. HUD-VASH has been a major part of why overall veteran homelessness has gone down.
How could the program improve?
It seems that some communities are having a harder time using all their vouchers. Part of that is because they might be a victim of their own success. As you get the long-term homeless into supportive housing, you have a shallower pool of people to help. Incrementally, it gets harder to use those last vouchers, and maybe the people left are a little more resistant. Another problem is that it’s difficult for medical centers to continuously hire and retain HUD-VASH case managers. You now have bigger caseloads for case managers, they’re stretched thin, and they may have a harder time finding eligible veterans and providing the level of case management needed.
In most communities, there is still great demand for HUD-VASH vouchers, and available vouchers are quickly used to get veterans into housing. However, low utilization is a problem in some communities. Addressing this problem may require changes to how new vouchers are allocated based on need and how strictly vouchers are targeted to chronically homeless veterans.
The VA needs to make sure the case management component of the program is strong so they can identify eligible veterans and help them get and stay housed. Housing authorities, especially those in higher-cost, tighter rental markets, may need to refine their policies to make the program more attractive to landlords.
What do you predict will happen next for HUD-VASH and overall veteran homelessness trends in the US?
The affordable housing pressure hasn’t gotten any better and will continue to create more homelessness, and there are still a lot of veterans with affordable housing challenges. Even if the administration doesn’t go through with this proposal, uncertainty at the local level about the future of the program is slowing things down.
For a long time, the federal government was pumping new vouchers into communities, which helps the homeless numbers go down. But they’ve stopped doing that. Congress’s allocation for new HUD-VASH vouchers in 2017 was the lowest it’s been since 2008, and the process for applying for new vouchers has been delayed. As a result, no new HUD-VASH vouchers have been awarded in 2017, and the administration does not plan to request funding for more vouchers in next year’s budget.
We’re hearing that in many communities, the inflow of people returning to homelessness or becoming homeless for the first time is higher than expected. Combined with less housing options for that influx, we’re facing a significant problem.
Given how successful HUD-VASH has been, it makes more sense to continue to expand it than to end it. Even though the administration backtracked on the proposal, the uncertainty it created is harmful to ongoing efforts to combat homelessness.
Two men are reflected in van window as they sit outside Dalianis House, a residential building for veterans in transitional housing in Nashua, NH. The men sit in front of an American flag mural, painted by local nonprofit Positive Street Art, that honors veterans in Nashua. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute.