Veterans Day was November 11—the day reserved each year to recognize the millions of men and women who have served this country to defend our safety and preserve our freedom. In honor of Veterans Day, we want to highlight a challenge that veterans face more often than nonveterans: homelessness. We want to shine a light on new and innovative strategies—in particular the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration—that federal and local agencies are using to address this problem.
The Obama administration made ending homelessness among veterans a national priority, aiming to eliminate it by 2014. The Department of Veterans Affairs released a strategic plan to address veterans’ homelessness through education; employment-related programs and resources; treatment of health conditions (e.g., PTSD and traumatic brain injury); and housing, including permanent supportive housing. The VA has begun expanding its focus from housing programs for those already homeless (e.g., permanent supportive housing through HUD-VASH and transitional housing through the VA Grant and Per Diem program) to include less intensive interventions to stop homelessness before it starts. Strategies include linking veterans facing a housing crisis with needed services and limited financial assistance to pay rent arrears and provide partial rent subsidies, as the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program does. This assistance, it is hoped, will stabilize veteran families in housing and prevent homelessness. But designing effective programs to prevent homelessness among veterans specifically presents a challenge, because we do not know much about what works in this area.
To help fill this critical gap, Congress approved the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD). The program is administered collaboratively by HUD, VA, and the Department of Labor and is being evaluated by Silber & Associates and the Urban Institute. It provides veterans who are at imminent risk of losing their housing or who have been homeless for a short time with short-term financial assistance (e.g., rent or utility assistance, security deposits) and case management services, treatment for health conditions, and employment services to help them maintain housing or get them back into housing as soon as possible. For the demonstration, the VA selected five communities near military bases with large numbers of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA; Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas; Fort Drum in Watertown, NY; Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, WA; and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
These communities are home to thousands of veterans living at or below the poverty line, the veterans most at risk for losing housing and becoming homeless, according to the 2010 Veterans Supplement to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Further, poor veterans have higher disability rates than their non-poor counterparts. The disabilities often found among veterans are the ones that also increase the risk of becoming homeless, making disabled veterans in poverty extremely vulnerable to housing loss. However, it is important to note that veterans may have presented with these risk factors before their military service, making it difficult to determine the impact of military experience on homelessness risk.
Local homeless service providers, VA medical centers, and workforce development service providers administer the program locally and were given substantial flexibility to design a program that meets the needs of veterans living in their communities. Together, they have served over 1,000 individuals in veteran families since the program began in spring 2011. The lessons VHPD agencies have learned about serving homeless or at-risk veterans successfully will provide policymakers with critical information about designing interventions that help keep future veterans stably housed.