As the pandemic continues and things remain tough in communities nationwide, changes set forth in recent legislation cause me to be hopeful about what we can accomplish to end homelessness. The final spending legislation for fiscal year 2021, passed by Congress as an “omnibus” bill late last December, included some small but important details to fill gaps in federal programs for addressing homelessness. These promising measures set out to improve homelessness among veterans, youth, and Native populations. This blog post, and future blog posts, will talk about these changes, and why they’re important for our work.
One of these measures expands eligibility for the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH) to include homeless veterans whose military discharge status had previously made them ineligible for these housing benefits – primarily the “Other than Honorable” (OTH) status. Targeted by the VA to homeless veterans with the most severe health issues, HUD-VASH – which combines deep, permanent rent subsidies through HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program with health care and other supportive services to end homelessness – can serve as a great example for other initiatives seeking to attain the same success.
What is OTH?
Veterans have been discharged with OTH status for a range of reasons, often involving repeated violations of military rules that do not include serious felonies. Homeless veterans and their supporters have noticed that this pattern of behavior – typically from a person aged 19 to mid-20s, when many join the military – can be a symptom of a developing mental illness which, a few years later, may become severe and leave the person unable to find work and chronically homeless. This is exactly the kind of veteran needing help from HUD-VASH.
However, these veterans with OTH discharges have not previously been able to receive HUD-VASH funding. The change in the omnibus bill now means more veterans are eligible to receive HUD-VASH vouchers, which means that more veterans will be eligible to get into housing. This is good news!
Why This Change Matters
Expanding HUD-VASH eligibility is an equity issue. Racial disparities in the military discharge system are well documented, as are disparities among homeless veterans. Including veterans with OTH discharges now provides an opportunity to address those disparities, and helps ensure that no veteran with a disability and serious health care needs is left homeless.
Other VA homelessness programs, like Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) and the Grants and Per Diem (GPD) program, are already open to veterans with this broader range of discharge types. None of those programs, however, provide what HUD-VASH does: a permanent rent subsidy through HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program, combined with health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
HUD-VASH has already substantially reduced chronic homelessness among veterans, and this change in eligibility, along with regular increases in funding for the program that Congress has enacted for many years, will take that work further.
While expanding HUD-VASH eligibility for veterans with an “other than honorable” discharge is a step in the right direction, we still have a ways to go to ensure that every veteran experiencing homelessness can be housed. For example, veterans with “dishonorable” discharges – even under the new law – continue to be ineligible for HUD-VASH. People discharged in this situation who have disabilities will continue to struggle.
While HUD-VASH is extremely popular, there are some communities where its implementation is not ideal. This is frequently because of understaffing at the local VA Medical Center, combined with a failure of the voucher program to keep up with market rents. The Biden Administration has already expressed interest in making HUD-VASH a consistently excellent program. Models like HUD-VASH, which combine Housing Choice Vouchers with health care and other supportive services to end homelessness, can serve as a great example for other initiatives seeking to attain the same success. By continuing to improve and expand HUD-VASH, we can build on its success and make it an example for other programs to end homelessness. Making this happen will be a priority for the Alliance in coming years.
Meanwhile, I hope communities will quickly identify homeless veterans for whom permanent supportive housing is necessary, but who have been excluded from HUD-VASH due to discharge status, and use this new law to get them housed.