Here’s How You End Veteran Homelessness: Employment, Housing, and Health Care

In 2009, Congress authorized a three-year demonstration program to explore ways to increase the housing stability of homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.

Now, here we are at the tail end of 2015, and a lot has changed in the years since. The nation has reduced veteran homelessness by 35 percent using many of the same methods first employed in that program, the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD). It was one of the first steps in the Obama administration’s initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2016.

Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released an evaluation of the program that showed it had achieved increased income and employment among its participants. Even more strikingly, 76 percent of participating veterans were still living in their own places six months after exiting.

Run by HUD and the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Labor (DOL), the program offered homeless and at risk veterans up to 18 months of targeted employment, health care, and housing interventions. It served particularly vulnerable sectors of this population, primarily veterans who served in the post-9/11 era.

Looking at the report, which presents results from an evaluation conducted by Silber & Associates and the Urban Institute, it’s clear that the program was a success, but it wasn’t without its shortcomings. Here are few highlights, the good and the bad:

  • At the time of program entry, about 61 percent of participants were receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and just over four percent were receiving benefits from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As they exited this program and accessed employment and disability benefits, the number of participants receiving SNAP decreased by 18 percent and the number of CHIP beneficiaries dropped to 0.3 percent.
  • After leaving the program, 13 percent more participants obtained income from employment, and fewer obtained income from unemployment benefits. Unsurprisingly, participants who accessed DOL-funded employment assistance through the program viewed the assistance favorably. (Returning veterans interviewed highlighted the challenges of demonstrating the value of their military experience to civilian employers.)
  • At program entry, 14 percent of participants had full time employment, while at program exit that number rose to 29 percent. At one of the program sites where there was a strong relationship between housing providers and the DOL-funded Local Veterans Employment Representative (LVER) and Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP), the full time employment rate was 41 percent at program exit.
  • The employment rate among the participants could have been better, though. Four of the five sites had trouble getting DOL-funded employment assistance to serve their clients.
  • Fewer than two percent of participants benefited from the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program, despite more than 40 percent of them reporting a disability as a barrier to employment (three in four of those veterans said they were disabled as a result of their military service).
  • Several sites reported confusion about eligibility requirements, which resulted in some veterans who were homeless for longer periods of time being turned away. In addition, one in 10 veterans who were served at one pilot site were already stably housed at the time they entered the program. Clearer guidance from the interagency partners would have helped sites target their funding more appropriately.

So what does this all mean? Well, the program no longer exists (it lasted from 2011 to 2014 and served 4,824 adults and children), but the methods it pioneered are still in use today, so this final report presents insights that are still applicable for the homeless assistance field and our ongoing push to end veteran homelessness. Here are a few:

  • Employment is really important. Connect people to employment, and they will be less reliant on mainstream benefits. It’s up to housing providers to build relationships with Disabled Veterans Outreach Program specialists (DVOP) and Local Veterans Employment representatives (LVER) to enhance employment assistance for veterans, but DVOP/LVER specialists must also be prepared to serve all homeless veterans, even those with high barriers.
  • For homeless and at-risk veterans with disabilities, VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program is a really valuable resource. VA should examine and pursue any and all opportunities to engage eligible veterans in VR&E and other therapeutic employment programs.
  • Clarity when it comes to who is eligible for assistance is key. Programs must know who they’re meant to serve, because funding is limited. We want to prioritize people with the greatest need, but also make sure we’re not wasting resources on someone who doesn’t need them. Interagency partners must communicate program guidelines and eligibility requirements clearly to grantees to ensure that the right veterans are in the right programs and nobody gets turned away unnecessarily.

Of course, the report is 212 pages long, so these are far from the only lessons that one could take from it. Neither do we intend for this brief blog post to be the definitive interpretation of its results. We encourage you to read it yourself.