How many homeless veterans are there?
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by – the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty – the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only 7% of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans.
The number of homeless veterans has decreased by about 50% since 2009, according to HUD’s Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR).
To obtain the most up-to-date local estimates, contact the homeless coordinator at your nearest VA medical center or the Office of the Mayor or county government serving your area.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans
Combat veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the Global War on Terror who need help – from mental health programs to housing, employment training and job placement assistance – are beginning to seek help from the nation’s community-based homeless veteran service provider organizations. Already stressed by an increasing need for assistance by post-Vietnam-era veterans and strained budgets, homeless service providers are deeply concerned about the influx of combat veterans who will eventually be requesting their support.
Approximately 12,700 veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND) were homeless in 2010. The number of young homeless veterans is increasing, but only constitutes 8.8% of the overall homeless veteran population.
Why are veterans homeless?
In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.
What services do homeless veterans need?
Homeless veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing and nutritional meals; essential physical health care, substance abuse aftercare and mental health counseling; and personal development and empowerment. Veterans also need job assessment, training and placement assistance. NCHV strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping veterans reach the point where they can obtain and sustain gainful employment. If not, clients will be unable to find and maintain safe, decent, permanent housing.
What are some of the risk factors for veteran homelessness?
In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a report titled “Incidence of Homelessness among Veterans and Risk Factors for Becoming Homeless in Veterans.” The report presents findings from a study of roughly 500,000 men and women who separated from military service in 2005 and 2006 and were tracked through Sept. 30, 2010. These veterans had not experienced any episodes of homelessness before their separation from active duty, and utilized DoD (including TRICARE) or VA health care after their separation.
The full report can be downloaded here (PDF). Among its findings were the following:
- OEF/OIF and women veterans experienced higher homeless incidences after military separation. At 5 years after separation from the military, 3.7% of the veterans experienced an initial episode of homelessness (the newly homeless). OEF/OIF and women veterans experienced higher incidences of homelessness than their non-OEF/OIF and male counterparts. Among the veterans who became homeless, the median times to the first episode of homelessness were close to 3 years, indicating half of new homeless episodes occurred 3 years after discharge from active duty. OEF/OIF homeless veterans encountered their first homeless episode slightly sooner than their non-OEF/OIF counterparts after discharge from active duty.
- Veterans who experienced homelessness after military separation were younger, enlisted with lower pay grades, and were more likely to be diagnosed with mental disorders and /or traumatic brain injury (TBI) at the time of separation from active duty. At discharge from active duty, 79–84 percent of homeless veterans were under age 35, in contrast to 64–74 percent of domiciled veterans. Most (70–78 percent) of the homeless veterans were enlisted and in the lower pay grades of E1–E4, compared with 39–51 percent of the domiciled veterans. Nearly half or more (from 48 percent for OEF/OIF men to 67 percent for non-OEF/OIF women) of homeless veterans were diagnosed with some mental disorders, about double their domiciled counterparts (from 21 percent for OEF/OIF men to 34 percent for non-OEF/OIF women). The percent of homeless veterans diagnosed with TBI was nearly 2–3 times higher than their domiciled counterparts.
- Presence of mental disorders (substance-related disorders and/or mental illness) is the strongest predictor of becoming homeless after discharge from active duty. Nearly half or more (ranging from 48 percent for OEF/OIF men to 67 percent for non-OEF/OIF women) of the newly homeless veterans were diagnosed with some mental disorders prior to discharge from active duty; the rate of diagnosed mental disorders among newly homeless veterans increased to 64–76 percent before becoming homeless.
- Homeless veterans, especially women, had received disproportionally higher military sexual trauma (MST)-related treatment than domiciled veterans and the majority of the newly homeless women veterans who received MST-related treatment had received the treatment before they became homeless. The percentages (29 for non-OEF/OIF and 34 for OEF/OIF women, 3 for non-OEF/OIF and 2 for OEF/OIF men) of homeless veterans who had received MST-related treatment were over 3 times higher than those of their domiciled counterparts (5 for non-OEF/OIF and 9 for OEF/OIF women, 0.2 for non-OEF/OIF and 0.3 for OEF/OIF men). Among the homeless women veterans who received MST-related treatment, 60 percent of non-OEF/OIF and 72 percent of OEF/OIF homeless women had received MST treatment prior to their first homeless episode. Among the male homeless veterans who received MST-related treatment, 46 percent of non-OEF/OIF and 53 percent of OEF/OIF homeless men had received the treatment prior to their first homeless episode.
- Approximately 65 percent of homeless veterans utilized the VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV)/Homeless Chronically Mentally Ill (HCMI) Program; OEF/OIF and women homeless veterans were more likely to utilize the Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program. Approximately 65 percent of homeless veterans utilized HCHV/HCMI program where clinical staff of HCHV and Grant and Per Diem Programs provide services to HCMI veterans with mental illness and/or substance-related disorders. OEF/OIF and women homeless veterans were more likely to utilize HUD-VASH and telephone HUD-VASH homeless programs than their non-OEF/OIF and male homeless counterparts.
Homeless veteran demographics
- 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans
- 20% of the male homeless population are veterans
- 68% reside in principal cities
- 32% reside in suburban/rural areas
- 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities
- 50% have serious mental illness
- 70% have substance abuse problems
- 51% are white males, compared to 38% of non-veterans
- 50% are age 51 or older, compared to 19% non-veterans
Who is helping homeless veterans?
The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing that offers the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are successfully regaining control of their lives. Because government money for homeless veterans is limited and VA serves less than half of this population, it is critical that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities most Americans take for granted: employment, housing and health care.
There are over 2,100 community-based homeless veteran service providers across the country and many other homeless assistance programs that have demonstrated impressive success reaching homeless veterans. These groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with federal, state and local government agencies; other homeless providers; and veteran service organizations. Veterans who participate in these programs have a higher chance of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.
- For a list of community-based homeless service providers arranged by state, click here.
- For profiles of successful homeless veteran employment assistance programs that include transitional housing and other supportive services, click here.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on homeless veterans’ issues, programs, legislation, federal funding streams and national policy issues, as well as interagency coordination of services and organizations providing direct services to homeless veterans.
CEO, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
David O.O. Higgins Jr.
Communications Manager, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans