By Ruth Schwartz, Executive Director
In 2009, when President Obama and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Erick K. Shinseki proclaimed that we as a nation would end Veteran’s homelessness by 2015, my reaction was one of skepticism. In the 30 years that I have worked to solve homelessness, I had never seen a sustained, appropriately targeted, and adequate federal funding commitment to end homelessness.
But now I have become a believer. According to the most recent national estimates, on any given night, 62,619 men and women veterans were homeless in 2012, compared to the 75,609 in 2009—a 17% decrease in three years. What is astounding is that this drop in homelessness occurs at a time when we would expect to see an increase in homelessness given the growing number of veterans returning home, and the many challenges they face in securing employment in our tight employment market.
The reason for this turn-around has been two-fold: the utilization of evidence-based approaches such as Homeless Prevention, Rapid Rehousing, and Housing First; and a new and ongoing sustained infusion of federal funding necessary to bring them to scale.
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The first federal Veterans Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing efforts began in 2011 with the creation of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. Drawing from lessons learned from the President’s Stimulus’ funded Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program begun only two years before, the VA rapidly deployed community-based short-term assistance to thousands of veterans. By the end of last year, 7,663 veterans and their families who were at high-risk of homelessness, had received short-term financial assistance and supportive services, thereby enabling them to avoid losing their housing and becoming homeless.
Previously, a major deficiency of the response to homelessness amongst veterans has been the paucity of short-term assistance to help people off the streets and shelters and quickly back into housing, otherwise referred to as Rapid Rehousing. Through the same SSVF program, 13,766 homeless Veterans households moved into housing and were provided assistance, including case management, assistance in obtaining services from the VA, as well as time-limited financial assistance to help pay rent, utility bills, security deposits and moving costs.
Because of these successes, the President proposed and the Congress just approved tripling the funding from last year for the SSVF program to $300 million annually; and just this last week the President had proposed a similar increase for SSVF next year. If next year’s budget is approved, more than 50,000 additional veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness will be assisted in resolving their homelessness through the SSVF program.
The third strategy that has led to success in ending homelessness among veterans is referred to as Housing First – providing long-term housing for seriously mentally ill Veterans so that they can live in permanent supportive housing at rents that they can afford. The most important program element of Housing First is that it doesn’t require mental health treatment adherence as a condition of receiving housing assistance. Housing First is premised on the underlying belief that people with access to support services in their housing will be able to live independently and retain their housing and improve their quality of life.
To date, 48,385 rental Veterans Assistance Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers have been made available, and most recently they have been targeted using the Housing First approach. Another 10,000 VASH vouchers have been appropriated and the President’s budget includes 10,000 more in the new budget year. The program is now targeting the hardest-to-serve homeless veterans and that is as it should be—the greatest amount of assistance should go to those with the greatest need.
Another change in the program is that the President has requested additional funding so that the VA can provide the wrap-around supportive services needed by Veterans so that they successfully retain their housing instead of slipping through the cracks back into homelessness. Programs like Assertive Case Management, Critical Time Intervention, and Peer Support, are proven approaches to help homeless Veterans retain their housing.
In Los Angeles County, organizations concerned with homeless veterans are working together with the local VA to make sure that all veterans are getting the right help. If the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its primary partner agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, continue on their current path to work collaboratively with the hard driving front-line community organizations serving veterans that have worked so diligently for so many years—the unsung heroes—then it truly is possible to end homelessness among one critical population—our nation’s heroes—and give us the fortitude to end homelessness for all Americans.