Pushing to the Goal: Three Ways to Accelerate Ending Veteran Homelessness

The Administration’s commitment to end homelessness among Veterans and their families remains steadfast. The President’s FY 2014 Budget proposal continues to increase investment in effective strategies, including $75 million for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program and $300 million for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. The Administration’s previous investments in ending Veteran homelessness continue to show significant results: homelessness among Veterans is down 18 percent since the launch of Opening Doors.

During the April 16, 2013 meeting of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, along with representation from the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and Office of Management and Budget, Council leadership reviewed progress at ending Veterans homelessness, recognizing that even with the progress to date, efforts must be accelerated to meet the goal of ending Veterans homelessness by 2015. Ending Veterans homelessness remains possible with the right investments focused in the right way: investments that connect Veterans experiencing homelessness to housing, that ensure that Veterans in need of support are identified and connected with the right services, and that leverage mainstream benefits for Veterans experiencing homelessness. This article focuses on progress and opportunities in these three areas.

Faster Connections to Permanent Housing

Ending Veterans homelessness means connecting Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness to housing. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) provides a clear example of the impact that focused, strategic investments can have on ensuring Veterans obtain and maintain housing. This program—modeled after HUD’s successful Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP)—provides funding for nonprofit organizations and consumer cooperatives to deliver supportive services and financial assistance to very low-income Veteran families experiencing or at risk of homelessness. SSVF offers support services and financial assistance to help homeless Veterans move as quickly as possible into housing and attain housing stability. For those with housing in jeopardy, SSVF helps Veteran families remain housed by providing supports like landlord mediation and short-term financial assistance. VA’s investments in SSVF have been scaled up to reflect the program’s success and impact, approved at $300 million in FY 2013 and proposed at $300 million in the President’s FY 2014 Budget.

Thanks to SSVF and sustained commitments to other VA and HUD programs, the rate of homeless Veterans moving into permanent housing has increased by 40 percent compared to a year ago. The graph to the right depicts the number of homeless Veterans enrolled in various VA programs who obtained housing in the first quarters of 2012 and 2013; communities throughout the country are significantly increasing placements into permanent housing—one of the most critical indicators of progress toward ending homelessness.

For housing programs to make the biggest impact possible, they must be targeted judiciously for the Veterans who need them most. In her presentation the Council, Dr. Susan Angell, Executive Director for Veterans Homeless Initiatives for the Department of Veterans Affairs, described how VA and HUD retooled the HUD-VASH program to focus on engaging Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness and accelerating this group’s movement into permanent housing. She reported that for the first time since the creation of HUD-VASH, more than of 65 percent of new program participants were chronically homeless at entry.

See the interview with Vince Kane from VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans in this edition of the newsletter, describing VA’s experience applying Housing First principles to HUD-VASH.

Every homeless Veteran can be housed by investing in programs with proven outcomes, targeting resources so that Veterans receive the right housing response for their situation, streamlining the path from homelessness to housing, and increasing the rate of Veterans obtaining housing.

Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Every Veteran  

Ending homelessness among Veterans also requires reaching every Veteran in need of assistance. VA established the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans (1-877-4AID-VET or 1-877-424-3838) to identify Veterans experiencing homelessness or housing crises, and engage them with the most appropriate interventions. Through this free, national resource, Veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness and their families can get connected with the VA services and benefits they have earned, including housing programs and support services. In its first year of operation, the Call Center received roughly 10,000 calls; today it receives nearly 10,000 per month. VA encourages Veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to make the call.

In October 2012, VA also implemented a clinical reminder within its VA medical facilities to assess homelessness and housing instability among every Veteran seeking VA health care. VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans identified two questions strongly correlated with Veterans’ risk factors for homelessness: 

  • In the past two months, have you been living in stable housing that you own, rent, or stay in as part of a household?
  • If not, are you worried or concerned that in the next two months you may not have stable housing that you own, rent, or stay in as part of a household?

These questions are now asked of all Veterans receiving outpatient services from VA Medical Centers. In the last quarter of 2012, almost 1.26 million Veterans were assessed using these questions, and 14,393 Veterans experiencing homelessness or housing instability and an additional 17,405 Veterans at-risk of homelessness or housing instability were identified and connected to services. Veterans with current housing instability are referred to a homeless specialist for housing stabilization services and connection to VA homeless programs. Veterans at-risk of homelessness are generally referred to social workers to coordinate access to other forms of assistance such as landlord and family mediation.

VA’s proactive approach with this clinical reminder is one example of how systematic assessment can assist with outreach and early detection of homelessness and housing instability. Through early detection, Veterans can receive less expensive forms of prevention assistance, like conflict mediation or utility assistance, and potentially avoid a costly and traumatic housing crisis.

Community-based organizations conducting outreach and providing services to people experiencing homelessness, including Veterans, can also help identify Veterans in need. How these questions are posed—even the basic questions to determine whether someone experiencing homelessness is a Veteran—is important. Tom O’Toole, Director of the National Homeless Veterans Patient Aligned Care Teams (HPACT) Program for VA, recommends using these three questions in the field to determine Veteran status and VA eligibility: 

  1. Did you serve in the military?
  2. If yes, were you on active duty (not reserves) after 1980 for at least two years or did you serve in combat? (If on active duty prior to 1980, the two-year requirement does not apply.)
  3. If yes, did you have an honorable or general discharge? 

While not perfect, the first question can help determine Veteran status with better accuracy than other options, which are prone to misunderstanding or can become convoluted with technicalities. Affirmative answers on the second and third questions can help determine whether a Veteran is eligible for VA services. Communities can help end Veteran homelessness by making sure that Veterans are properly identified among people experiencing homelessness using field-tested questions like these, and connected with VA services whenever possible.

Stronger Bridges to Mainstream Benefits

Improving our ability to identify needs is critical, but must be accompanied by ensuring Veterans are successfully linked to the range of benefits and services available to address their needs, many of which are provided outside of the VA system. Mainstream benefits—health insurance, economic assistance, and income supports—play a vital role in the health and economic security of Veterans. SSVF providers are engaging Veterans and documenting dramatic increases in Veterans’ access to important mainstream benefits. 

The above graph compares entry and exit levels of enrollment in various mainstream benefits for Veterans and their family members participating in SSVF. Guided by this example, USICH and its member agencies are sharpening our focus on streamlining Veterans access to these important resources, wherever possible. At a community level, the success of SSVF providers in increasing Veterans access to these important benefits suggests the opportunity available for community-based organizations to help Veterans access the resources available to them which can be critical to ending homelessness, ensuring housing stability, and promoting recovery.

There are less than 1,000 days before the end of 2015. Focusing on these three important ways to accelerate progress will help communities and our nation ensure that every Veteran has a safe, stable place to call home – and together we’ll achieve our goal.

Read more in this April 2013 newsletter on Veterans: 

Breaking Down Legal Barriers to Housing 

Ending Veterans Homelessness: HUD-VASH Makes Housing First a Priority

Successful Program Model: Washington State's SOAR Program for Veterans