How State Departments of Veterans Affairs Can Help End Homelessness

December 15, 2016  |  Publications

As a nation, we are moving in the right direction when it comes to ending homelessness among veterans. A few states have met the federal benchmarks and criteria established to support this achievable goal, but there is much work to be done. State governments, specifically State Departments of Veterans Affairs (DVAs), can help. They can play an important role when it comes to leading their communities to success, and ensuring that federal benchmarks and criteria are achieved.

DVAs Serve Veterans

The main mission of a DVA is to address the needs of veterans in their state. Many play an integral role in efforts to end veteran homelessness, through various efforts and specialty programs in partnership with the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and local housing agencies and providers.  Here are a few facts about DVAs:

  • There are 153 State Veterans Homes in the United States, with one or more in each state and Puerto Rico.
  • These State Veterans Homes provide more than 30 thousand beds of care for elderly veterans and spouses.
  • States also operate 153 State Veteran Cemeteries in 47 states and territories including tribal trust lands, Guam and Saipan.  These cemeteries provided more than 35 thousand burials in 2015.

In addition, most offer veterans assistance applying for VA disability compensation and pension benefits, and some offer SOAR-trained staff to assist with SSI/SSDI benefits applications.

Many also operate specialty programs to address the special needs of specific veteran populations such as women or those experiencing homelessness.

Actions DVAs Can Take

The States of Virginia and Connecticut have met the federal benchmarks and criteria for ending veteran homelessness. They credit their success to collaboration with state departments and partnerships with community providers and VA. State governments and DVAs interested in ending veteran homelessness by helping more veteran’s and families access housing should consider implementing one or more of the below action steps:

Lead or designate leadership at the state level to coordinate the state role in ending veteran homelessness.

States that have successfully ended veteran homelessness have done so with a strong push from their governors to coordinate efforts, accelerate progress and remove existing barriers to housing for veterans.

Working Example:

  • Governor Malloy of Connecticut committed to ending veteran homelessness. He pushed his team from the Departments of Housing and Mental Health to enhance collaborations with VA and other community partners, and oversaw those efforts through federal certification that Connecticut had effectively ended veteran homelessness.

Ask your local housing authorities and continuums of care to prioritize anyone who served in the military for mainstream housing subsidies or assistance.

VA funds a full continuum of services for veterans, from rapid re-housing to transitional and permanent supportive housing. But, eligibility for certain programs varies based on whether an individual has met the federal definition of veteran.

Working Example:

  • Clark County, Nevada, has chosen to prioritize veterans ineligible for VA services for assistance through mainstream housing resources in the community.

Share data among state agencies to ensure veterans are accessing all the benefits they are due.

Many veterans are unaware of veteran-specific and mainstream programs or assistance that can help them access or maintain housing.

Working Example:

  • Washington State created the Veteran Benefit Enhancement Project, a partnership between its DVA and State Department of Social and Health Services, to ensure that veterans are accessing all VA and mainstream benefits for which they are eligible. This project saved the State Medicaid agency over $20 million in five years. The State DVA also offers SOAR-trained benefits assistance to improve SSI/SSDI application approval rates for veterans.

Collaborate with federal and community partners who are already working to end homelessness.

VA and many community providers are actively working to ensure that homeless veterans have stable housing. Partner with them in these efforts and examine resources that states can bring to the table to fill gaps in service to veterans.

Working Examples:

  • The Massachusetts Department of Veterans Affairs has a team of housing navigators that helps homeless veterans navigate the services and benefits they need to exit homelessness. VA detailed this model in a housing navigator toolkit.
  • The Washington State DVA administers several federal grant programs for homeless veterans, including U.S. Department of Labor Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) grants to help homeless veterans find gainful employment.
  • CalVet partners with local organizations to fund local stand-down events, where veterans can be connected with a range of services and benefits at a single event.

Work with the state legislature to designate additional financial resources and/or assistance that rapidly places homeless veterans in permanent housing.

Affordable housing is the key to ending homelessness. VA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can’t end veteran homelessness alone. Some states have proactively provided additional financial resources to individual homeless veterans, organizations serving homeless veterans, or to the development of affordable housing for veterans.

Working Examples:

  • The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs has a Homeless Veterans Trust Fund that helps homeless and at-risk veterans with small cash grants for utilities, rent and security deposits.
  • CalVet has partnered with an affordable developer on the CalVet Residential Enriched Neighborhood (REN) program, which is bringing affordable homeownership opportunities to veterans in various communities across the state.
  • The State of Pennsylvania has developed a Veterans Trust Fund and the State of Vermont has developed the Vermont Veterans Fund. Both funds offer grants to counties and community organizations to offer certain services to veterans, including addressing homelessness.

Offer support to justice-involved veterans who are at risk of homelessness.

The development of veteran treatment courts or veterans dockets in District Courts can prevent veterans from incarceration, and the subsequent housing and re-entry challenges that can follow. For those who are incarcerated, discharge-planning can be improved to decrease the likelihood of homelessness immediately after incarceration.

Working Examples:

  • According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Nevada and Texas have both passed legislation calling for statewide development of veteran treatment courts. California, Minnesota and New Hampshire have passed legislation allowing justices to substitute treatment for incarceration for veterans working through combat-related mental health issues. The National Center for State Courts and Justice for Vets have more information and resources on veteran treatment courts.
  • The Washington State DVA operates The Veteran’s Incarcerated Reintegration Services, offering job referral and placement, assessment and referral to VA health care, assistance with court appearances and early release requirements and transitional housing for veterans upon release from jail.
  • The State of Missouri runs an incarcerated veterans outreach program to ensure veterans near release from the Department of Corrections are aware of the benefits they may be eligible for upon release.

Support members of the National Guard and local reserve units.

Guard and Reserve Members often face challenges reintegrating into civilian life and accessing benefits post-deployment. Benefits are sometimes restricted to those who had active duty military service. The Adjutant General should ensure that they inform those who served in the National Guard of housing-related benefits and services they may be eligible for using Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) events and other outreach tools. States should also determine whether they can leverage other programs like their Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) program to create additional employment opportunities for National Guard members who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Working Examples:

  • The Vermont Veterans Outreach Program and Family Assistance Centers help veterans obtain benefits and access housing, employment and other community resources.
  • Florida created the Florida Guard Family Career Connection Program to address historically high unemployment levels among members of its 53rd Brigade Combat Team. This collaborative effort between ESGR, YRRP, the State’s One-Stop Career Centers, The Guard Battalion’s Career Counselors and military-friendly employers has resulted in the employment of hundreds of men and women of the National Guard.
  • Florida has also allowed National Guard Members to receive veterans priority of service treatment at all state one-stop career centers, whether they are eligible for Federal veterans benefits or not.

Empower State Women Veterans Coordinators.

Women who serve in the military do not always identify themselves as veterans upon their return to civilian life, and many are living doubled up and may be harder to find and engage with services. State Women Veterans Coordinators have done incredible work to increase equitable access to VA healthcare and benefits for women veterans. Access to housing services and housing stability-related supports should also be at the forefront of that work.