Jan. 22, 2013
If all goes according to plan, our nation will end veteran homelessness in 24 months.
If that notion sounds wildly ambitious to you, that is because it is. But this ambition has fueled significant reductions in veteran homelessness, and has put our nation on course to prevent veterans and their families from ever having to experience homelessness.
Since their inception, federal assistance programs for homeless veterans have received overwhelming bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress. While critical, these investments have been too modest to deal with the full range of problems associated with veteran homelessness.
Veterans, meanwhile, have historically been overrepresented in the homeless population. Their numbers alone demonstrate the magnitude of the issue: As recently as 2008, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) best estimate showed that a quarter of a million veterans experienced homelessness over the course of a year.
President Barack Obama vowed to change this in March 2009 when he became the first sitting U.S. President to demand an end to veteran homelessness. “Until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets, our work remains unfinished,” he said.
Within the year, the Obama Administration took decisive action, most notably in November 2009 when Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki unveiled his department’s historic Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness.
For decades, the veteran service provider community represented by NCHV has worked arduously toward the goal of ending veteran homelessness. The federal government’s announcement of the Five-Year Plan demonstrated its solidarity in making that goal a reality.
Congress has seen the promise of Secretary Shinseki’s call to end veteran homelessness and, through fiscal year (FY) 2012, has fully resourced the most critical programs to end veteran homelessness.
The 112th Congress was in position to ramp up these investments for FY 2013 but ultimately did not move its year-long appropriations bills to the president’s desk. Important authorizations, however, such as $300 million for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program in FY 2013, were signed into law in August 2012 (Public Law 112-154). VA has already issued a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the SSVF Program in FY 2013 worth up to $300 million, but Congress has yet to appropriate $200 million of these funds.
Without the necessary arsenal of resources to rapidly re-house veterans on the brink of homelessness, our nation has still recorded significant decreases in the number of homeless veterans— a 17.2% decline since 2009, according to the latest Point-in-Time (PIT) Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
But the question remains: Will we end veteran homelessness in 24 months? Or put another way, is the Five-Year Plan working?
How We Can Succeed
If we gauge success by only using the programmatic definition of “homeless veteran” – that is, the total number of homeless veterans that are either “sheltered” (e.g. residing in transitional housing) or “unsheltered” (e.g. residing in an alleyway) – we will likely fall short. The projected rate of decline in PIT numbers does not take us to an “absolute zero.”
But there is hope.
By 2015, we can end unsheltered veteran homelessness, and we can ensure that sheltered homeless veterans are able to transition to affordable permanent housing. This would be a success worthy of the men and women who once proudly served our nation in uniform.
If only by ending unsheltered veteran homelessness, our nation would effectively fulfill the president’s pledge to “reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets.” In fact, it can be argued this is precisely the population that comes to mind when the overwhelming majority of Americans think of homeless veterans.
Unsheltered homeless veterans – specifically those classified as chronically homeless – are among the most difficult to serve. Yet the continued buildup of the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program promises a reduction in this population, so long as these vouchers are properly targeted to chronically homeless veterans. The program, which combines veteran-specific Section 8 housing vouchers with VA case management services, is credited by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness with much of the recent reductions in veteran homelessness.
Decoding the Data
According to “The 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness,” recently released by HUD, an estimated 27,476 homeless veterans were in unsheltered locations on a single night in January 2012. This number is up 0.1% – or 14 veterans – from the previous year. This estimate does not give a true picture of the present unsheltered homeless veteran population.
“One-third of cities in the U.S. did not do an unsheltered count (in January 2012),” said Dr. Dennis P. Culhane, Director of Research at the VA National Center on Homelessness among Veterans and reviewer of the 2012 PIT Report. These cities were not required to conduct a new unsheltered count in 2012 and so used their previous year’s estimates.
While only accounting for one-third of U.S. cities, these cities actually represent two-thirds of the nation’s unsheltered homeless population, Dr. Culhane added. It can be inferred, therefore, that the 2012 numbers are largely outdated.
All Continuums of Care (CoCs) – the local planning bodies responsible for coordinating the full range of homeless services in a geographic area – will be required to conduct a new unsheltered count in January 2013. With the recently mandated inclusion of veteran data in Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS), which inform the sheltered component of the PIT Count, we can expect next year’s estimate of veteran homelessness to be the most definitive to date.
Resourcing the Five-Year Plan
The 113th Congress must complete the FY 2013 appropriations process started by its predecessor – specifically by passing bills that would have funded the Departments of Veterans Affairs (H.R. 5854 or S. 3215, 112th Congress) and Housing and Urban Development (H.R. 5972 or S. 2322, 112th Congress).
The following funding levels were contained in all of the aforementioned bills, and should be enacted not only for FY 2013 but also through the maturity of the Five-Year Plan (FY 2015):
If these resources are made available, the next few months will be viewed as a watershed in the history of service delivery for homeless veterans.
The infrastructure for the Five-Year Plan is already in place in thousands of communities across America. Each and every one is eager to make good on the pledge to end veteran homelessness in five years. VA and HUD have presented budgets that will make it possible, and Congress – both congressmen and senators, both Republicans and Democrats – have voted in their favor.
The only thing missing is President Obama’s signature.
For more information on these issues, visit NCHV's “Policy & Legislation” webpage here.