Nov 11 11:15 AM

Veteran homelessness down, but tens of thousands still on street

Dylan Wood, 10, hauls luggage up the walkway to his new home on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus in Roseburg, Ore. Wood, his parents and his four siblings moved into one of the housing project's 54 units after being homeless for six months.
Nicholas Johnson / The News-Review / AP

For the fourth year running, the number of former U.S. servicemen and women living on the street this Veterans Day is down. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Americans who served in the Armed Forces will be sleeping rough tonight, prompting homelessness activists to urge for “aggressive” measures to defeat the persistent scourge.

Figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development show a 33 percent drop in 2010 and 2014, down from 74,770 at the turn of the decade to 49,933 in January this year.

The decline — due in part to an uptick in spending on housing programs — has raised hope that a problem long associated with those leaving active service could one day be all-but eliminated.

Bringing the figure down to zero is unrealistic, but making homelessness among veterans “rare, brief and non-recurring” by the end of 2015 is a reachable goal, according to said Laura Zeilinger, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH).

“I think it’s within reach. It’s going to take a lot of intense focus and aggressive and extraordinary efforts, but we believe that it’s achievable.”

Year-on-year drops in the rate of homelessness among veterans have occurred since 2010, and the overall drop is outpacing that of the wider homeless population.

The drop is thought to be largely down to the Opening Doors initiative, which President Barack Obama announced four years ago in a bid to eliminate chronic and veteran homelessness and decrease risks of homelessness by 2015.

Since 2011, 66 communities across the country have already decreased veteran homelessness by more than 50 percent, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness based on data submitted yearly to HUD by communities across the country.

The decrease in homelessness has also followed an increase in spending in housing programs. Veterans Administration (VA) efforts in the area have increased home-buying by 25 percent from 2010 to 2014 in order to meet goals set by the Opening Doors initiative.

From 'vagabonds' to GI Bill

The downward trend of recent years marks a break in what is seen by many as a shameful history of veteran homelessness in the United States.

From the “vagabonds” found in urban areas after the Revolutionary War and the “vagrancy” that became a national issue at the end of the Civil War, the scourge has afflicted those returning from theatre.

But it took The Great War — the armistice of which was signed 96 years ago today — to focus attention on veterans who became homeless after discharge.

Promised a cash bonus, payable in 1945, for their service, many World War I vets needed the money to survive the Great Depression. What became known as the Bonus Army marched on Washington and set up camp in 1932, only to be violently dispersed by the U.S. Army, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The vets did eventually receive their bonuses four years later, and, in 1944, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which was written to help veterans return to civilian life.

The story of the G.I. Bill is a story of success — some 7.8 million World War II veterans received education and training — and the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill have helped tens of thousands more.

But, even with help, not everyone returning from war can make the readjustment. As a result, after more than a half-century and a multitude of foreign wars and military interventions, America faced a homeless veterans crisis that dwarfed the camps of the Bonus Army.

Progress through permanence

The housing programs have not only been spending more, they have been transitioning to methods that are more effective and cost-efficient. The two primary VA homeless assistance programs driving progress toward ending homelessness focus on providing permanent housing, which researchers, like Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, say is actually more cost-effective than providing services.

Culhane and his co-authors of a study found that health care and treatment costs for those who were given permanent housing was around one-third less than for those without permanent housing. This suggests that providing permanent housing could be cheaper overall than providing services to counteract the detrimental health-related effects of homelessness.

Culhane says that these results with the veteran population could predict the outcomes for the non-veteran population, especially with the recent expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, which allows the poor to have regular access to health care.

“The VA has been able to transform its services to the housing first quickly across the country.” Zeilinger said. “They’ve been at the forefront to taking it to scale.”

The National Call Center for Homeless Veterans is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-877-424-3838. The National VA Homeless Resource Guide is here(PDF).


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