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Veteran Homelessness

Publications  |  April 22, 2015

How many homeless veterans are in America?

In January 2016, communities across America identified 39,471 homeless veterans during point-in-time counts. This represents a substantial decrease (56 percent) in the number of homeless veterans counted in 2010. Though veterans continue to remain over represented in the homeless population in America, these recent decreases demonstrate the marked progress that has been made in ending veteran homelessness.

What are the typical demographics of homeless veterans?

Homeless veterans tend to be male (91 percent), single (98 percent), live in a city (76 percent), and have a mental and/or physical disability (54 percent). Black veterans are substantially overrepresented among homeless veterans, comprising 39 percent of the total homeless veteran population but only 11 percent of the total veteran population.

As troops return from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the face of veteran homelessness has changed: homeless veterans are increasingly younger, female, and heads of households. Despite this, homeless veterans are still most likely to be males between the ages of 51 and 61 (43 percentand to have served in the Vietnam War, and, in the next 10 to 15 years, it is projected that the number of homeless veterans over the age of 55 could increase drastically.

Why do veterans experience homelessness?

Veterans are more likely than civilians to experience homelessness. Like the general homeless population, veterans are at a significantly increased risk of homelessness if they have low socioeconomic status, a mental health disorder, and/or a history of substance abuse. Yet, because of veterans’ military service, this population is at higher risk of experiencing traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), both of which have been found to be among the most substantial risk factors for homelessness. A 2015 study of veterans initiating medication-administered treatment screened each of these patients for risk of homelessness and found that the prevalence of homelessness in veterans with opioid use disorder is 10 times more than the general veteran population.

Among the recent Iraq and Afghanistan cohort of veterans—who are more frequently female than their older counterparts—an experience of sexual trauma while serving in the military greatly increases the risk of homelessness. Additionally, veterans often experience difficulty returning to civilian life, particularly those without strong social support networks, and may not have skills that can be easily transferred to employment outside of the military. Veterans face the same shortage of affordable housing options and living wage jobs as all Americans, and these factors—combined with the increased likelihood that veterans will exhibit symptoms of PTSD, substance abuse, or mental illness — can compound to put veterans at a greater risk of homelessness than the general population.

What federal programs serve homeless veterans?

Homeless veterans can receive assistance both from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provided they have an eligible discharge status, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), regardless of discharge status. In a joint supportive housing program between the two departments (HUD-VASH), Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers housing vouchers are combined with case management and supportive services at VA medical centers. Since 2008, over 85,000 VASH vouchers have been awarded to Public Housing Authorities across the US. Evaluation of the HUD-VASH program has found a number of positive outcomes for participants, including an increase in employment and income, the number of days housed, and social networks. Additionally, the HUD-VASH program has been found to have a one-year cost savings of approximately $6,000 per participant on health services.

In 2012, VA introduced the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, with the parallel goals of both preventing veteran homelessness and rapidly re-housing veterans and veteran families who do fall into homelessness. The program provides a variety of time-limited services and financial assistance. In 2015, the SSVF program aided over 157,000 individuals, of which nearly 99,000 were veterans and over 34,000 were children. After being housed, only 9.4 percent of veteran families returned to homelessness one year after exiting the program, and only 15.5 percent returned to homelessness two years after exit.

SSVF and HUD-VASH are the main response to veteran homelessness in many communities; however, there are numerous other resources for assisting veterans in a housing crisis. The Grant and Per Diem transitional housing program and Domiciliary Care programs funded through the Veterans Health Administration offer temporary assistance to veterans as bridge or crisis housing. The Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program under the Department of Labor assists homeless veterans with employment skills and job searches.

Are we ending veteran homelessness?

In 2009, then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, in tandem with President Barack Obama, set forth the audacious goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. Current VA Secretary Robert McDonald also supports this goal. To help secure commitments to this goal, in June 2014 First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. The First Lady has received pledges from 702 mayors, 9 governors, and 172 county and city officials to end veteran homelessness in their communities.

In January 2015, New Orleans became the first major city to announce that it had ended veteran homelessness. Since then, a total of 2 states and 29 communities have effectively ended veteran homelessness, and many others are on track to join them. The success of SSVF, HUD-VASH, and other programs targeted to veterans, combined with the dedication and commitment of America’s communities prove that ending veteran homelessness is possible.