Breaking Down Legal Barriers to Housing
Like other people who experience homelessness, many Veterans encounter legal barriers to housing. Both civil and criminal legal issues can make it difficult to access housing, benefits, employment, treatment, and other needed services. These types of legal barriers may contribute to a Veteran becoming homeless, as well as make it challenging for a Veteran to exit homelessness.
Legal Services are Three of Top Ten Unmet Needs among Veterans Who Access Homeless Services
Every year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) conducts a Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups survey (CHALENG), gathering input from Veterans, service providers, and other stakeholders regarding Veterans’ service needs. In the most recently published CHALENG report, legal assistance needs rank as some of the highest unmet needs, even ahead of housing. In fact, the report indicates that three of the top ten needs identified by both Veterans and providers are legal assistance needs for child support issues, outstanding warrants and fines, and help to restore a driver’s license.
While VA does not provide legal representation, the agency and its partners are taking notice and developing initiatives to address the needs of justice-involved Veterans. These initiatives (detailed below) provide access to the legal services and supports that homeless and formerly homeless Veterans identified in the CHALENG as critical unmet needs or needs that can present significant barriers to their housing stability. For Veteran-serving organizations, accessing these resources can improve stability for Veterans. We encourage organizations to improve their collaboration with these and other initiatives serving justice-involved Veterans. Some of these important initiatives include:
Health Care for Re-entry Veterans
The VA’s Health Care for Re-entry Veterans Program (HCRV) plays an important role in preventing homelessness by helping Veterans formerly incarcerated in prisons to successfully transition back into their communities. HCRV conducts outreach and pre-release assessment services for Veterans before they leave prison. The program also provides referrals and linkages to medical, psychiatric, employment and social services upon release, as well as short-term case management assistance. Finally, the program offers state-specific resource guides to help incarcerated Veterans plan a successful reentry. More information on HCRV, its resource guides, and contacts by state is available.
Veterans Justice Outreach
The VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach Program (VJO) helps to prevent homelessness by providing various services to Veterans involved with local justice systems. Every VA Medical Center has at least one Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist who works with local courts, law enforcement, jails, legal service providers, and other justice system partners. The services provided by VJO Specialists include direct outreach, assessment, and case management to help ensure that justice-involved Veterans obtain timely access to VA medical, mental health, substance abuse and other services. VJO Specialists participate in problem-solving courts, help Veterans access legal assistance, and provide training to local law enforcement agencies. More information on the VJO program, including local contacts by VA Medical Center, is available.
The Child Support Initiative
Veterans experiencing homelessness face a unique set of challenges that can affect their child support cases such as higher unemployment rates, income changes, housing instability, and frequent moves. A child support order that is not appropriately tailored to a Veteran’s actual income level can make it difficult for that Veteran to pay housing expenses and create child support debts. These arrearages, in turn, can negatively affect a Veteran’s credit rating, eligibility for housing assistance, ability to rent housing and obtain employment, as well as pose psychological barriers to family reconciliation and support.
The Child Support Initiative is a collaborative pilot project between the Department of Health and Human Services, VA, and the American Bar Association that provides support for homeless Veterans and their families to address unresolved child support issues. Services include assistance negotiating sustainable child support payment plans, child support debt forgiveness as appropriate, connection to legal assistance, and referrals to community-based services like responsible fatherhood programs. This pilot project currently operates in nine cities that utilize a common framework; however, the exact services and activities vary according to the available resources and specific needs of homeless Veterans at each site. More information about The Child Support Initiative and individual site models can be found online here and here.
Supportive Services for Veteran Families
Under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program (SSVF), VA awards grants to nonprofit organizations that provide homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing services to Veteran families. One of VA’s requirements of SSVF grantees is to provide Veteran families with access to legal services to assist with issues that directly interfere with their ability obtain or retain permanent housing. Most SSVF grantees currently provide access to legal services through referrals to other community-based programs; however, SSVF grantees increasingly choose to deliver these services directly. VA has information about SSVF and the grantees located in your area available online.
Stateside Legal is a website dedicated to helping low-income Veterans, Servicemembers, and their families’ access free legal services, benefits, and legal information. The website provides localized searches to find legal assistance, clearly indicating which services are free. This search tool also includes links to State Veterans Affairs Offices and other organizations that provide Veterans help with VA-related claims and other legal assistance. Finally, this website offers user-friendly legal resources to help Veterans better understand their legal issues.