Samantha Sais / The New York Times / Redux

Houston declares end to veteran homelessness

Some argue that the national focus on veterans comes at the expense of homeless families and children

Houston announced Monday that it had effectively ended veteran homelessness, seven months before the White House’s ambitious goal to house every veteran nationwide.

The fourth-largest city in the U.S., Houston is the first of the nation’s 40 biggest cities to meet the target. Phoenix, Salt Lake City and New Orleans said they have already reached it.

“Since January 2012, we have housed 3,650 veterans and their families,” said Marilyn Brown, the chief executive of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless in Houston. “We have changed the system so that anyone who enters our community who is homeless — the system is there to immediately find them.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the city formed street outreach teams and a coordinated effort among several local and federal agencies to identify and assess homeless veterans and refer them to housing.

There are an estimated 50,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., and there are almost 600,000 homeless people on the streets and shelters — a count that does not include those who are sleeping on people’s couches or in their garages. That has some homeless advocacy groups questioning the focus on veterans, which they say has come at the expense of children and families.

“Family programs are being defunded, and the priorities of local governments are going to these veteran programs,” said Paul Boden, the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco. “You can put a Band-Aid on a cancer sore and say you cured cancer, but the patient is still going to die.”

He continued, “These are public relations campaigns” that don’t address the problem of affordable housing for all. “Homelessness wasn’t created by a lack of wraparound services but because we defunded affordable housing.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, the president of the National League of Cities, said that he understands the concerns but that the challenge set by first lady Michelle Obama to end veteran homelessness — a challenge accepted by 604 local leaders — has created invaluable partnerships that will eventually help end all homelessness.

“What this shows us in Houston, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and New Orleans is that we know what to do and we know how to do it,” he said. “We now know that if we target a portion of the homeless population, we can get this done … We need to apply the same kind of commitment and the same kind of resources to everyone.”

“Our courageous veterans deserve the opportunity to experience the American dream they’ve risked so much to defend,” said Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro in Houston Monday. “Thanks to our coalition of federal and local leadership, Houston has developed the tools to identify and support every veteran in the city experiencing homelessness.”

The challenge is even greater in Los Angeles, the city with the most homeless veterans, estimated at more than 3,700. The overall homeless population in much of Los Angeles County has gone up 16 percent, to more than 41,000, since 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted in January. The number of homeless veterans in the county has stayed about the same.

And that’s despite HUD-VASH, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program. People Assisting the Homeless, a Southern California organization with a network of homeless shelters and housing services, gave out 1,100 HUD-VASH vouchers to homeless vets last year. 

Brown said she saw nothing wrong with targeting homeless veterans.

“These veterans gave more than certainly I have ever been asked to give in support of my country,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone would question they deserve housing and stability once they return. It’s a population that already sacrificed for me. I certainly think they should be at the top of the list.”

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