Gearing Up for 2012 – The “Critical” Year
Staff of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans had the privilege of visiting the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans in Philadelphia the week before Christmas. The event served two purposes: to review the progress of the VA Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness, and to help NCHV plan for the 2012 Annual Conference May 30 – June 1, 2012, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Halfway Home: Progress in the Plan to End Veteran Homelessness.” Since Secretary Eric Shinseki announced the Five-Year Plan in November 2009, it has been VA leadership that most often mentions the “countdown,” a testament to VA’s commitment to the plan. On the walls of the main conference room at the National Center, we saw it all laid out in striking clarity.
Center Director Vincent Kane and lead researcher Dennis Culhane, along with other center staff, spent most of the day with us. We pored over the research that justifies the performance goals of the plan and informs the policy shifts necessary to ensure its success. And we spoke candidly about some of the speed bumps the VA and its community-based partners have encountered during the early stages of plan implementation.
We discussed the recently released 2011 Point in Time estimates of homeless persons reported to Congress in the HUD Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR), which showed a 12% decrease in veteran homelessness between 2010 and 2011. We then compared that result with existing capacity in the veteran service community.
Center staff generally agrees the decrease is largely due to the successful lease-up of HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers. And we all acknowledged the decline is also dependent upon the success of VA Grant and Per Diem (GPD) programs, which are holding the line against increases in veteran homelessness despite continued economic stagnation, the housing crisis, high veteran unemployment and major troop withdrawals from Iraq. These issues have conspired against the Five-Year Plan since its inception, yet the steady declines in veteran homelessness attest to the early success in plan implementation.
“There is no doubt this (2012) is the ‘critical’ year in the plan,” said Center Director Kane. He was speaking about program enhancements, but also about federal agency and Congressional support. “We are so close to where we need to be, but we need to ensure adequate resources to see it (the plan) through.”
The opening of the 2012 NCHV Annual Conference will mark the unofficial midway point of the Five-Year Plan. By then we expect to have reported on funding measures for the major homeless veteran programs for FY 2013. Spending authorizations for FY 2012 represent the largest federal investment in the campaign to end veteran homelessness in U.S. history.
Credit for that begins with President Barack Obama, who has made good on his promise to end veteran homelessness and has consistently included record funding increases for veteran assistance programs in his budget requests. Congress deserves high praise for its bipartisan support of those programs, a legacy that has been forged over two decades. It follows through to VA leadership and community providers that have helped regionalize the Five-Year Plan according to local needs and service assets.
With assistance from the staff at the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, NCHV’s policy priorities for 2012 have come into sharper focus, and we agree this will be a “critical” year in the Five-Year Plan to End Veteran Homelessness.
The 11,000 HUD-VASH vouchers funded in FY 2012 will bring the total authorized since 2008 to nearly 50,000, or approximately 83% of the original target. These vouchers are designed to provide permanent housing and supportive services for veterans with serious mental illness and other disabilities, and extreme low-income veteran families with dependent children. Building the program to 60,000 vouchers – which will remain available for veterans in crisis when current beneficiaries advance out of the program – is vital to address the housing needs of chronically homeless veterans and those at high risk of homelessness.
There is an even greater need for permanent housing beyond the HUD-VASH program, however. According to VA research about half the veterans exiting the VA Grant and Per Diem program do not obtain permanent housing, despite successfully completing their self-improvement programs and gaining employment. The main reason for that is lack of affordable housing in most American communities.
Research also shows one in 10 veterans living in poverty is at high risk of becoming homeless. At the launch of the Five-Year Plan, some VA officials estimated approximately 90,000 units of permanent housing would be needed to ensure the success of the plan.
In July 2011, NCHV and The Home Depot Foundation – with the cooperation of VA and HUD – hosted the “Veteran Access to Housing Summit” in San Antonio. More than 125 leading authorities on veteran services, housing and project finance gathered to explore ways to increase the availability of affordable housing to low-income and extreme low-income veterans. You can read the report from Summit participants here.
One of the new frontiers in the campaign to end veteran homelessness, prevention assistance is a key component of the Five-Year Plan. The VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program is entering its second year, and approximately $100 million in aid will be administered by community-based partners. Assistance will come in the form of short-term rental and mortgage assistance, rapid re-housing assistance for families that become homeless, housing-search and some relocation expenses, and other aid to keep veterans in crisis housed.
The program is modeled after the highly successful Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing fund, a $1.5 billion program that helped avert or end homelessness for nearly one million families nationwide and one of the major reasons a decrease in family homelessness was reported in the 2011 AHAR. Unfortunately, for various reasons, veteran participation in that assistance program was extremely low.
NCHV will be monitoring and reporting on the success of the SSVF program. We believe the $100 million authorization level is low compared to the actual need. More than 1.4 million veteran families live in poverty throughout the United States, and as previously mentioned about 10 percent of them are at high risk of becoming homeless. We believe this program, in order to achieve its goals under the Five-Year Plan and effectively prevent veteran homelessness in the short term, should be funded at the $300 million level through the maturity of the plan (2015). This would also help address the lack of veteran access to HPRP assistance. SSVF program success and Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) data will help determine funding needs for 2016 and beyond.
Income Security and Employment
The recently passed extension of unemployment benefits and VOW to Hire Heroes Act will help promote the income security of thousands of veterans who could be considered at high risk of homelessness for economic reasons. But no program has been more effective helping homeless veterans obtain and maintain employment at livable wages than the Department of Labor’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP).
Administered by the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) for more than 20 years, HVRP has served as the nation’s only employment program wholly dedicated to serving homeless veterans. Each year more than 14,000 veterans, most with serious and multiple barriers to re-entering the workforce, find employment at an average wage exceeding $10 per hour, at a cost of about $2,600 per placement. HVRP is one of the most successful, cost-effective programs in the DOL services portfolio.
HVRP is so successful because it is not simply an employment assistance initiative. The program guarantees homeless veterans job placement and job retention services, and most grantees also provide residential stability, health services and counseling supports. Grantee eligibility for continued funding is based on how well they meet or exceed their contractual performance objectives. HVRP has been authorized at $50 million per year since 2005, yet in FY 2012 the program will receive about $38 million.
As important as housing and health services are in the campaign to end veteran homelessness, employment and other income security is the key to maintaining one’s health and home. Now that we understand poverty is one of the principle predictors of veteran homelessness, employment is clearly one of the most important needs of low-income veterans. HVRP should be funded at its authorized level, and that level may need to be increased if veteran unemployment remains at near record highs.