Homelessness among veterans is more common than among other Americans, despite the strong sense of goodwill that exists across the country toward people who have served in the armed forces, and despite the many resources the federal government, rightfully, commits to taking care of veterans in need. This is perhaps the most frustrating single piece of the homelessness problem – the political will is there, the know-how is there, and the resources are there for the asking – and yet the problem of veterans homelessness hasn’t been solved because everyone has had other priorities.
Which is why Secretary Shinseki’s call for an end to veterans homelessness is so hopeful. That call, and the steps that have been taken by VA, and by others around the country in response, have left us closer than ever before to a solution. VA has expanded the range of homeless services they offer, put more caseworkers in the field (either directly or through contracts) to help homeless or at-risk veterans with housing and access to health and employment services. They’ve even developed systems to quantify progress. An important shift in mindset is in process, focusing on solving the problem instead of just running disparate programs – and it’s clear from the progress made thus far that the process has changed for the better.
And yet, in no way is this a done deal. The work that remains, while less than for any other part of the homelessness problem, is substantial. The keys to making that happen over the next few years are as follows:
- Persistence – We need to finish what we’ve started. It will be important to keep going back to Congress each year to follow up on commitments of funding. HUD-VASH and Supportive Services for Veteran Families, providing permanent supportive housing on the one hand and emergency prevention and rapid re-housing on the other, need to be scaled up to solve the entire problem. This is an entirely achievable goal, even in times of tight federal budgets.
- Outreach and engagement – With the resources and appropriate program models in place, the biggest task will be to find every homeless veteran, and every veteran at imminent risk of homelessness, and make sure that he or she is connected to the right package of services. VA has an important role to play, as does the Department of Defense; but so does every person in every community who may encounter a veteran in these situations.
- Make it everybody’s business – Solving this problem will require that the outpouring of goodwill toward veterans that we have seen in recent years translates into real action, by entire communities. Leaders from VA and from local communities need to be working together, involving employers, landlords, the faith community, every level of government, and every concerned resident who can help.
- Keep leadership VA’s mission – At the same time that it is everyone’s business to end veterans homelessness, everyone will continue to look to VA for leadership. The Secretary’s leadership has been vigorous; that leadership will also need to be exercised by VISN and Medical Center directors around the country.
- Housing First – Secretary Shinseki has clearly backed a Housing First approach, beginning with his statement at the Alliance’s national conference in July, 2010, because it works. This approach is sometimes opposed because it appears to inadequately condemn what is seen as bad behavior, and on the grounds that a homeless person should be required to earn housing by good behavior. The “earn it” approach, however, will not lead to an end to veterans homelessness, as 25 years of experience proves. We need to be clear that veterans earned protection from homelessness when they put on uniforms and agreed to put their lives at risk.
Happy Veterans Day to everyone, and our thanks to those who have served and are serving still.
We are looking forward to substantially fewer veterans living homeless each year, until in a few years every veteran has a decent place to live, and every veteran who loses housing gets the help he or she needs, immediately, to solve that crisis.