The National Alliance to End Homelessness is absolutely committed to the goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015. We believe it can be done. We believe we have the resources to get it done. And we believe it must and will be done.
It is all the providers that give us so much confidence that we’re going to make it. Making sure that every veteran who becomes homeless gets immediately back into housing with the supports that they need is not only a matter of resources. It’s certainly not just a matter of setting a national goal. It’s a matter of having the talent, determination, and commitment to do the hard, messy, complicated work of finding homeless veterans, getting them into housing, and keeping them there. That is why we are so tremendously grateful for all of you, for what you do, and for your willingness to put your talent and skills behind this.
I urge you to reflect on the unique nature of the opportunity we have to end veteran homelessness. It’s not so often that we actually get the chance to solve a social problem. Of course, we need to seize that opportunity. Now that we have the resources, it will be a harmful defeat if we are unable to solve the problem. It will mean that we leave people on the street and in shelter because we couldn’t get our act together. And it will also undercut confidence that we can make progress on homelessness more broadly.
On the other hand, if we do use these resources wisely and skillfully, and with a sense of urgency, we will build momentum not only to keep resources for homeless veterans – and those at risk of homelessness – but also to end homelessness overall. We should certainly have confidence because we already cut homelessness among veterans 24 percent between 2010 and 2014.
We are now at a point at which we believe that the resources to end homelessness for every veteran are in place. According to the most recent AHAR, in January of 2014, there were just short of 50,000 veterans who were homeless.
A few important things to focus in on in this number: 36 percent of them were unsheltered – this is about the same percentage unsheltered as in the general population of homeless people, which is a surprise given the resources and infrastructure we have for the vets who are most likely to be on the street. There could be a couple of reasons. First, we might not be doing adequate outreach to veterans –not finding the people on the street, or maybe waiting for them to come in instead of reaching out to them. Second, we might not be taking a Housing First approach – that is, we might be screening people with active behavioral health issues out of GPD, HUD-VASH and SSVF under the theory that they will not succeed. This may be leaving people on the street.
Also from the AHAR, only 4 percent of homeless veterans are in families – this seems very low, given that about 37 percent of the general homeless population is people living in families. What this says to me is that the protective factor of family is keeping veterans out of homelessness – and that this is more of a factor for veterans than for other parts of the population. It also says that we should keep this in mind when deciding on whom to focus – obviously the bigger part of the problem is individuals. Many individuals do have families, and they will likely reconnect with them when they get back on their feet.
We don’t know the percentage that is experiencing chronic homeless, but it is estimated at around 20 percent. What this says is that we probably have a lot of veterans in HUD-VASH who were not chronically homeless, and we need to target that resource better.
So the problem is still challenging – we still have work to do. But at the same time, we think that there are enough resources to solve it – that the money is there to provide every chronically homeless veteran with permanent supportive housing through HUD-VASH; and help all others back into housing through GPD and SSVF programs. This means that we have to make a significant effort to find every consumer, and we have to match that consumer to the proper intervention, and we have to make sure that that intervention works. We have to be more systematic and more aggressive.
We need to change some of our approaches, and these major changes are going to fall into two categories: systems and proper rapid re-housing.
The federal government cannot end veterans’ homelessness on its own. Individuals programs working on their own cannot. We need a community response. That is what a system is. As an SSVF provider, you have to find and provide services to every single veteran in your catchment area. That is not, of course, going to happen by lengthening your office hours or increasing your street outreach – although you may need to do those things. In fact, it is not going to happen solely because of anything that you do on your own to identify clients. You are going to have to partner – to be connected to every other entity in the catchment area that might find or identify a homeless veteran. That means partnering with VA, the Continuum of Care, and every other nonprofit – everyone.
Fortunately, you don’t have to make all of these connections on your own, nor the associated creation of data systems and metrics for measuring progress. There are various initiatives, some local and some national, focused on these partnerships – on pulling communities together to end veteran homelessness. You can work with any of the many initiatives to get to the goal of finding and housing every single homeless veteran in your area and keeping track of the metrics. There shouldn’t be any need to create a new system or develop your own network – although you might need to push to make the existing ones work a little better. If, somehow, there is NOT already a system or initiative or partnership in your locality, you may want to join with the CoC and VA to create something more organized.
Once we have identified a homeless veteran who needs SSVF, we have to do SSVF properly. Rapid re-housing is really quite a simple Housing First intervention that helps people get back into housing very quickly. It moves people into housing without preconditions, under the philosophy that all of us do better when we have the platform or base of a home.
Recently, the federal agencies (VA, HUD, USICH) and the Alliance developed the Core Components of rapid re-housing. There are three things that every rapid re-housing program needs to have available. They are:
- Housing Identification including recruiting landlords and helping the households to find an apartment.
- Rent and Move-In Assistance (Financial) including help with move-in costs, deposits, and rent or utility assistance.
- Rapid Re-housing Case Management and Services including housing focused assistance. People need help dealing with the crisis that caused their homelessness. They need to find housing that suits their needs, preferences, and financial resources. They need help to resolve credit and tenant issues, arrearages, and legal issues. They need help negotiating a lease. They need help connecting to services in the community. You can provide this help at the least during the period they are being subsidized. Importantly, however, these services MUST be voluntary.
Well executed rapid re-housing does a few things better than the usual practice of longer stays in shelter or transitional housing:
- It helps to reduce the amount of time veterans are homeless.
- It minimizes the impact of homelessness on veterans’ lives, things like employment, school, and health care.
- It gives people the platform they need to get back on their feet, if they are ready to do that.
- It costs less, so we can help more people.
While rapid rehousing may be better than homelessness, it is NOT going to solve all the problems of homeless people. It won’t end their poverty or make them immune to housing affordability problems. It won’t protect people from the challenges of the job market, the housing market, or their own choices. It probably will not eliminate their housing instability, either – many households that get rapid re-housing end up living somewhere else. Rapid re-housing won’t solve every problem, but neither will anything else we do for people, including transitional housing. It will, however, end their homelessness.
Rapid re-housing does seem to work as well or better than other interventions for most homeless people. So have confidence in it, and in your consumers.
As we reduce the number of homeless veterans, prevention is going to become overwhelmingly important. We are going to need it, obviously, to prevent a resurgence of homelessness. We are going to need it to maintain the capacity that you all have to help veterans. But the first thing is that we need to end homelessness for those veterans who are already homeless before we start a lot of prevention activities.
We are at an extremely important moment in the effort to end veteran homelessness, and homelessness overall. We have to tighten up our system and our interventions to get everyone who is already homeless housed.
Soon, for many communities, it will be time to start shifting to a system that can keep veteran homelessness at functional zero – because of course getting the number down to zero doesn’t mean that the same problems that cause 50,000 veterans a year to become homeless won’t continue.
The work we are doing to end veteran homelessness is difficult. The consumers’ needs are complicated. The interventions are complicated. It’s hard. And it’s frustrating. But, let’s end where we started. We have a tremendous and unprecedented opportunity. We have the public will and the political will to end veteran homelessness. We have the data-driven interventions we know will work to solve the problem. We have the resources sized to go to scale with those interventions, if we do it smart enough.
We must seize this opportunity. And to do so does not mean business as usual. It means a new sense of rigor, partnership and urgency. It means finding ways to overcome barriers, finding partners to fill gaps, making it work and making it work now. It isn’t easy – and it won’t get easier. But look at what you can accomplish. You can end homelessness for every veteran in our nation. You can build the system that will allow us to move forward and protect veterans in the future from facing homelessness as anything but the briefest and rarest of experiences.
This is in your hands.