3 Major Takeaways from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ Annual Conference

Recently, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans held its annual conference here in Washington, DC.

Homeless assistance practitioners, policymakers, and advocates from around the country gathered to learn about what’s working to end veteran homelessness. The contributions of numerous officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were also featured, including a keynote from Secretary McDonald (or Bob, as he urged the audience to call him). In his remarks he touted the efforts of successful communities from New Orleans to Houston and beyond and spoke of VA’s efforts to cut through bureaucracy to get the job done.

Beyond VA’s presence, there were some major takeaways from the conference that are definitely worth sharing:

  1. Ending veteran homelessness in a community means that all veterans have a path to permanent housing. As many communities drive toward zero, the question of “what is functional zero” understandably becomes more pressing. While it will largely be up to communities to make their own determinations about reaching zero, presenters at the conference repeatedly emphasized permanent housing placements (in other words, a veteran in transitional housing is still a homeless veteran) and short lengths of stay in shelter or transitional housing for veterans that become homeless.
  2. Your programs must be Housing First-focused. A small number of programs serving veterans will involve sober housing or similar (i.e. certain types of recovery housing), but to ensure you are serving as many veterans as possible, including those that are most vulnerable and have higher barriers, programs for homeless veterans in your community must have low barriers to entry and must be focused on housing the veteran first and foremost. It was clear from the communities highlighted in workshops that those that have adopted a system-wide Housing First approach are having the most success moving veterans into permanent housing and getting their numbers down.
  3. The Department of Veterans Affairs is here to help! It was VA that first set the goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year, and it is VA (from the Secretary on down) that wants to make sure we get the job done. There are understandably frustrations that arise, depending on your Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) or medical center, or anything in between; however, the big VA presence at the conference made it clear that VA has your back. There are certainly kinks to be ironed out, but it is critically important to see them as a partner and resource in your community’s efforts. You should be utilizing your Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) regional coordinators, the folks at VA central, and the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans to help get the job done.

For me, the conference served as an important reminder that numerous communities are making fantastic progress on ending veteran homelessness, but we still have a long ways to go.

As of the date of conference (as we were frequently reminded by speakers), we had less than 217 days left to do it! The information sharing and energy around the conference was a great boost and hopefully helped the conference participants return home with great new ideas and a renewed sense of “yes, we can!” Ending veteran homelessness in the next 200 days will be a big challenge, but as I learned at the conference, there are many dedicated and hardworking individuals out there who are up to it.