Veteran Homelessness: What’s Working, What to Watch

This guest post was written by Rebecca Cohen, associate in the Social & Economic Policy Division of Abt Associates.

In May 2018, Kittitas County became the latest community to be recognized by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as having effectively ended veteran homelessness. This community in eastern Washington State joins 62 other jurisdictions, including several states, that share this distinction. While some veterans may still experience homelessness in these places, the community is recognized for having sufficient resources to quickly help them find and maintain stable housing.

National trends and investment

As a nation, we feel an obligation to make sure members of the armed forces can lead healthy, productive lives following their service. This special concern is reflected in an increased investment at all levels of government in housing and services for homeless veterans.

Between 2010 and 2016 — a period in which the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. on a single night fell by about 14 percent — the number of homeless veterans dropped by 47 percent. This is a reduction of nearly 35,000 people. The point-in-time count of veteran homelessness ticked up slightly for the first time in six years in 2017 (to 40,056), but remained well below the 2010 count (74,087).

This remarkable reduction coincides with significant investment of resources in programs targeted to homeless veterans. The number of veterans in permanent supportive housing increased by more than 19 percent between 2015 and 2016 alone. As of September 2016, more than 114,200 veterans had been housed through the HUD-VASH program, which pairs long-term tenant-based rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.

Risk factors and interventions

Veterans who experience homelessness differ in a few notable ways from veterans who are housed. They tend to be younger (most veterans are 62 or older, whereas most homeless veterans fall between the ages of 51 and 61). Homeless veterans are also much more likely than veterans overall to identify as black or African American, to have a disability, and to live in urban areas. These characteristics place veterans experiencing homelessness more in line with the broader homeless population than with fellow former members of the armed forces.

Just as the demographics of veterans experiencing homelessness are similar in many respects to those of the non-veteran homeless population, the risk factors tend to be similar as well: unemployment or low income levels, poverty, substance abuse, and mental health problems. Compounding these dynamics, however, are factors unique to modern combat, such as lengthy deployments (which can contribute to erosion of social support networks following discharge) and increased likelihood of traumatic brain injury.

Implications for policy and practice

Over the years, we have made significant strides in helping veterans find stable housing. These successes point clearly to the importance of interagency cooperation, sufficient investment of resources, and a focus on clear and measurable goals. These efforts will need to be sustained and amplified for more communities to join the list of those that have effectively ended veteran homelessness.

View a research brief on veteran homelessness from the Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness to learn more about the unique challenges faced by veterans from different eras of service and the evidence base on programs to serve them.

Rebecca Cohen is an associate in the Social & Economic Policy Division of Abt Associates.