Honoring Veterans by Ending Their Homelessness

On Veteran’s Day, the nation pauses to commemorate the people who have served our country in the United States military – but the sectors that serve veterans and people experiencing homelessness work to honor them all year long. Through the urgency and coordinated action of federal, state, and local entities, veteran homelessness has been significantly reduced in the past decade.

According to the 2020 PIT Count, veteran homelessness has been almost cut in half (49 percent) since 2009. Both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness rates dropped in 48 states and the District of Columbia. This overall decline in veteran homelessness has remained steady in recent years, only showing less than one percent increase between 2019 and 2020.

This progress shows that investments like expanding the HUD-VA Supportive Housing and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families programs make a difference. But there is still work to be done. With the continued dedication of federal, state, and local partners, we can and must continue our efforts, especially in the context of the pandemic.

New Headwinds

COVID-19 has caused major economic disruption since the start of 2020, resulting in greater housing insecurity for many households across the nation. Meanwhile, a national affordable housing crisis has driven up rates of homelessness across the nation over the past few years. Unfortunately, these pressures have had an impact on veterans, and impacted the work to end veteran homelessness. Two areas where we can see this are in unsheltered homelessness and the presence of continued racial disparities in who experiences homelessness.

Rising Unsheltered Homelessness

Across the nation, unsheltered homelessness increased by 30% from 2015-2020, and in 2020 for the first time since HUD began collecting this data, more individuals experiencing homelessness were unsheltered than sheltered. Federal data shows that this shift is affecting veterans. Even before COVID-19, the 2020 PIT Count showed that rates of unsheltered homelessness among veterans had climbed 6 percent since 2019. When compared to 2016, the year with the lowest record of unsheltered veterans, the number has grown by 16 percent.

The increase in unsheltered veteran homelessness in the 2020 PIT Count occurred in all types of communities – major cities, largely urban, largely suburban, and largely rural. The most significant increases occurred in largely rural Continuums of Care (10 percent) and major city Continuums of Care (5 percent).

Unsheltered homelessness remains one of the greatest challenges facing the mission to end homelessness in the United States. Our successes in getting veterans off the street and into permanent housing will have an important impact on the nation’s ability to address the broader crisis of unsheltered homelessness.

Addressing Racial Disparities

Just as the work to end all homelessness demands a focus on racial equity, the work to end veteran homelessness also requires a commitment to equitably serving veterans of color.

Despite the fact that all racial and ethnic subgroups have benefited from the movement to end veterans’ homelessness, veterans of color still face higher risks of homelessness.

According to the 2020 PIT Count, Black veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population, as they make up one-third of all veterans experiencing homelessness. In contrast, only 12 percent of the entire veteran population identify as Black or African American. Additionally, while most Black veterans experiencing homelessness are sheltered, they still make up one-quarter of all unsheltered veterans.

Latinos/Hispanics are also disproportionally represented in unsheltered counts. According to the 2020 PIT Count, only 45 percent accessed emergency and transitional housing programs, while the majority (55 percent) are living in unsheltered conditions. In comparison, only 39 percent of non-Hispanic veterans experiencing homelessness are unsheltered. Thus, Hispanics/Latinos are less likely to be in shelter than their counterparts.

Communities’ continued work to end these disparities will be critical to best serve veterans experiencing homelessness, and thus help to end disparities in homelessness nationwide.

Mirroring Progress

A legacy of great work from HUD and VA is evidence that progress can be made; to date 3 states and 82 communities have ended veteran homelessness. This work is proof that homelessness systems and providers can achieve the same goal for other groups. If communities can invest the same amount of attention and resources in other subpopulations, they can drastically lower overall homelessness and housing instability for millions of people.

The amount of work to do this may be daunting, but not impossible. The work done to end veteran homelessness has provided evidence-based solutions that have shaped homelessness strategies overall. With new and unprecedented federal resources at hand to serve those who need it most – including veterans – communities can step into this legacy of progress.