Today is Veterans Day. We pause to celebrate and thank those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. We pause to support our troops.
In this spirit of support, I can’t help but reflect on the past year’s efforts to address veteran homelessness and support our troops as they return from war.
The federal government has a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and this past year saw some good progress. A significant part of the strategy has been the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, which is now in its fifth year of funding, and HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, a partnership between the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD-VASH combines Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) rental assistance with case management and clinical services. From 2008 to 2013, more than 73,000 vouchers were awarded.
As a result of SSVF, HUD-VASH, and targeted approaches throughout the city, Phoenix declared that it was the first city to end chronic homelessness among veterans. In 2011, Phoenix counted 222 chronically homeless veterans. By December 2013, they announced that all had been housed. Not long after, Salt Lake City announced it was the second city to end chronic veteran homelessness.
Phoenix and Salt Lake City have done a remarkable job fighting chronic veteran homelessness, and the model is catching: As of this this September, a total of 225 city, state, and county leaders had joined the Mayor’s Challenge to end homelessness among veterans by 2015.
However, despite these remarkable achievements, headlines that celebrate “ending chronic veteran homelessness” only tell part of the story. We have a long way to go to reach the larger goals of preventing and ending homelessness for all veterans.
While Phoenix’s victory is significant, 222 chronically homeless veterans represent a small piece of a large problem that includes all homeless veterans, not just those defined as “chronically homeless.” There is a difference between an individual who is homeless and one who is "chronically homeless." A chronically homeless person is defined as an unaccompanied adult with a disabling condition who has been homeless for a year or more, or an individual who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness within three years. Phoenix Magazine writer Niki D’Andrea reports that U.S. Vets, a nonprofit serving homeless veterans, still serves around 1,700 homeless veterans in the city’s metropolitan area - other nonprofits also report the problem is far from over.
Federal assistance to end chronic homelessness for veterans in Phoenix and elsewhere is critical. But it is not enough. We must provide care for other veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Many veterans have experienced trauma, mental health, and employment issues, and require appropriate supportive services. About 14 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report PTSD symptoms and 27 percent meet criteria for alcohol abuse. Forty-four percent of homeless veterans have some kind of behavioral health disorder. For women veterans, who are more likely to experience PTSD and also more likely to be parenting alone, the need is distinct and great.
These stats are a moving target, and with more troops returning home, we can expect the number of veterans in need will rise.
We must continue to fight veteran homelessness. Good news for a few should mean good news for many to come. FY 2015 funding for SSVF and HUD-VASH surpass 2014 levels, and the programs we saw succeed this past year will continue. Notably, the main points of President Obama’s opening remarks at his most recent cabinet meeting were Ebola, ISIL, and veteran homelessness. Clearly, political will is in play, and our community of advocates need to do all we can to keep it that way. My hope is this will result in expanded resources so that we can finally do our best to “support our troops” after all they have done for us.
Photo by Steven Samra