One of the most exciting days in recent years was November 3, 2009, when Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Erik Shinseki came to a national summit convened by VA and announced that it was his goal to end homelessness for veterans in five years. Veterans homelessness is the most frustrating part of the homelessness problem, because the resources and political will to end it should be available with sufficient leadership. General Shinseki’s speech indicated that leadership from the top would not be lacking.
Since that date, VA Headquarters has pulled out the stops to get a plan off the ground, along with Congress and others including the Alliance. Among the most important things that have emerged since them are:
A clearer mission – Secretary Shinseki’s announcement signaled a change at VA, to go beyond running disparate homeless assistance programs. Instead, VA plans to reorganize itself to solve the problem of veterans homelessness. A central component of that reorganization was individual commitment to the goal. As VA has a decentralized management, adoption of this goal at the top was not enough to turn the goal into action. But over the past two years, more and more leaders at the local and regional level of VA have become personally committed to the goal.
A broader range of program options – Until recently, VA’s homelessness programs served a narrow range of homeless veterans. VA had no programs designed for the most chronically ill, chronically homeless veterans; and it had no programs for veterans who were homeless due to short-term crises that were primarily economic. Both of these gaps, however, are in the process of being filled.
- HUD-VASH – For each of the past four years, Congress has funded a new batch of HUD-VASH supportive housing vouchers along with case management services at VA. This is an ideal tool for ending homelessness for those veterans with severe disabilities who are homeless the longest. HUD-VASH, when revived by Congress four years ago, required VA to do some new things, so the early vouchers were slow getting out and not necessarily targeted to those with the most need. The performance of VA, however, has improved substantially, both in efficiently getting new vouchers out the door, and targeting them to chronically homeless veterans.
- SSVF – The Supportive Services for Veteran Families program recently awarded its first round of funding: $50 million to 85 nonprofit providers around the country to provide rapid re-housing and emergency homelessness prevention services to veterans, similar to the services provided by HPRP. The programs are up and running and another round of funding – twice as large this time – has already been approved for next year.
And VA is still going. Over the next year and more, expect the unveiling of a number of new parts of VA’s plan:
- SSVF expansion – Funding has already been approved to double the size of the program. Additional expansion will be necessary to meet all the need.
- 60,000 HUD-VASH vouchers – Support appears strong in Congress to continue to expand this program as long as VA’s work on targeting continues to improve. Every indication is that there will be sufficient HUD-VASH rent subsidies and services for all chronically homeless veterans.
- Housing First – Secretary Shinseki has publically supported a Housing First approach that allows homeless veterans, even those with severe service needs, to be established in permanent housing as the first step in their move to independence. Services that target personal, medical, psychological, and other issues are provided after housing.
- More and better data – VA already has a strong plan for improving data about homelessness among veterans which will be useful at targeting resources and assessing progress.
- The most effective practices – VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans is expanding its ability to provide help to local and regional VA staff in order to better understand and implement effective models.
This is a plan that can succeed. This is a problem that can be solved. If we can find and house 76,000 homeless veterans, we can end veteran homelessness.
Later this week, we’ll go into what needs to happen, both in VA and in communities, for that to happen.