Successful Veteran Homelessness Programs Poised to Innovate and Expand

The United States has made significant progress in the fight against homelessness among veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veteran homelessness has decreased by 46% since 2010. Indeed, three entire states and almost 80 significant localities have effectively eliminated veteran homelessness. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told the House Financial Services Committee in May that he knows we can end homelessness in our country—because we’ve managed to cut veterans homelessness in half. 

Obviously, much work remains to be done. The VA takes advantage of more robust funding and a nationwide health care system, but still strives to improve its homelessness services, while Congressional lawmakers work together in bipartisan fashion to ensure VA programs serve more homeless veterans.

Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program

The Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, one of the Department’s three main homelessness programs, focuses on short-term crisis intervention in the provision of homeless prevention and rapid rehousing to homeless veterans and their families.

SSVF does nothing less than transform the lives of homeless veterans and their families—82% of those discharged from the SSVF program obtained permanent housing. SSVF helps veterans with the greatest needs—three quarters of veteran households who are assisted by SSVF earned less than 30 percent of the median income for their area and household size. The program has achieved these successes despite incurring the higher costs of treating veterans who are increasingly expensive because of their advancing age and ill health. 

SSVF is considered by experts on homelessness to be a well-managed program, one which continuously strives to reduce costs so that limited resources can be used for the neediest veterans. For example, SSVF has embraced a “rapid resolution” case management initiative which quickly resolves a household’s homelessness through advocacy, mediation, and conflict resolution in order to almost immediately re-locate that household with family or friends or place it in former homes or temporary accommodations.

A Promising Shallow Subsidies Initiative

Beginning October 1, SSVF will commence its Shallow Subsidy initiative to help homeless veterans in high-cost areas. Through this initiative, SSVF will provide rental assistance to very low-income and extremely low-income veteran households who are enrolled in rapid rehousing and homeless prevention services.

It is likely that most participants will have already received rental assistance, but remain rent-burdened and require the longer-term, shallow subsidy rental assistance to maintain permanent housing. The first high-cost localities to benefit from the initiative are Honolulu; Seattle; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and five cities in California.

However, for FY2020, the VA needs an additional $25 million to provide the level of service anticipated by the Shallow Subsidies initiative. Although FY2020 funding is already committed and the impact of a funding shortfall would not be felt until FY2021, without such an increase, the VA would have to make cuts to its innovative Shallow Subsidy initiative next year.

Ideally, even more robust funding could be provided to SSVF so that it could expand this significant initiative to all high-cost areas. Indeed, if this program is successful, it could perhaps become a model for non-veterans homelessness programs. The Alliance is working with lawmakers who oversee the VA to find the additional sum necessary to ensure the success of this promising initiative. 

Expanding HUD-VASH Eligibility

The much-admired Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program provides permanent supportive housing assistance for homeless veterans, prioritizing chronically homeless and highly vulnerable veterans who have a high level of housing and service needs, such as those with high barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. 

At the request of the Alliance and several veterans services organizations, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is advocating for legislation that would expand eligibility for the program to veterans who received “other than honorable” (OTH) discharges. 

An OTH discharge is a severe administrative discharge, but must not be confused with a bad conduct discharge or a dishonorable discharge. According to the Department of Defense, approximately 7,700 servicemembers are discharged on an OTH basis each year. Approximately 10% of homeless veterans received OTH discharges. HUD-VASH is a popular, successful, and well-funded program that has sufficient capacity to also treat OTH veterans who are experiencing chronic homelessness.  

The Alliance has been actively working to support this expansion, and hopes to have an encouraging update in the coming weeks.

Moving Forward

The opportunity to build upon our progress in the reduction of veteran homelessness represents an important opportunity for the nation. At a time when so many communities are struggling with homelessness and housing affordability, we have the chance to once again show that with the appropriate investment in resources and political will, we can and will end homelessness.