In communities nationwide, proof that ending veteran homelessness is possible
By ROBERT A. MCDONALD AND JULIAN CASTRO | Tribune News Service | Published: August 9, 2016
When President Barack Obama in 2010 issued a plan to end veteran homelessness, Chicago Army veteran Johnnie Mims was among the more than 74,000 men and women who’d once worn a military uniform but were without a permanent home. Like too many veterans, he had lost his way after the military and spent almost two decades without a place to call home.
Obama’s plan urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with our community partners, to take a fresh, urgent look at how we could support Mims and the thousands of other veterans who’d fallen on hard times. The president asked us to envision an America in which no veteran had to sleep on the street, one where every veteran had access to permanent housing.
Six years later, that vision is coming into clearer focus: New national data show that the number of homeless veterans is down by nearly half. Mims, safely housed and gainfully employed at age 60, is among thousands of veterans across the country who’ve exited homelessness since that call to action was issued by a determined president.
Just-released data from HUD reveal a 17.4 percent decline in the number of homeless veterans since the department’s 2015 count — quadruple the previous year’s rate of decline. That’s 8,000 more veterans safely housed on a single night. And those 8,000 are representative of tens of thousands more who have been helped over the course of the year and who are no longer on the streets or in homeless shelters but now have a safe place from which to start getting back on their feet. Since 2010, we’ve seen a 58 percent decrease in the number of veterans who are living on the street for lack of shelter.
The results in some communities are even more profound: Two states and 27 cities and counties have declared an end to veteran homelessness, assertions that the VA, HUD and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness have carefully verified using specific guidelines and criteria. And even more localities are poised to make similar announcements soon.
The data are fresh signs that the nation can reach the goal of permanently housing every veteran in need. But it would be a mistake to attribute these results to happy accidents or to a rising economic tide lifting all boats. In fact, these outcomes are due to a concerted effort by HUD and the VA to focus community implementation of strategies proven to reduce homelessness among veterans nationwide, community by community.
Here’s just some of what we’ve done to drive up the numbers of veterans housed:
• We set goals and encourage strong leadership. The president called on all federal agencies to think big about ending homelessness among veterans. First lady Michelle Obama encouraged local officials to do the same by issuing the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, which nearly 900 officials have accepted. This challenge is unleashing creative actions to find, house and serve every veteran who is homeless or on the verge of homelessness.
• We target high-need communities. The VA and HUD make efforts nationally but also focus intensely on 25 cities that historically have tended to have the highest number of homeless veterans — places like Los Angeles, Boston and New York City, all of which have dramatically reduced homelessness among veterans; and Philadelphia, Houston and Las Vegas, which have ended homelessness among their veteran populations.
• We use and share data. Local VA officials and HUD partners crosscheck federal and local data to quickly identify and serve veterans in need.
• We provide funding. Congress plays an essential role in funding VA’s many specialized homeless, health and outreach programs, which serve hundreds of thousands of homeless and at-risk veterans each year. This meant that in 2015, VA medical centers around the country could hire more staff to reach more veterans and connect them to VA or community assistance, an effort that directly contributed to 2016’s gains. Congressional funding also made possible HUD’s awarding of more than 85,000 rental vouchers through the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program since 2008. In 2015 alone, that funding provided the means to let us award grants to local nonprofits to house or prevent homelessness of more than 157,000 veteran families — including 34,000 children — through the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
• We promote best practices. Our work is guided by best practices such as Housing First, which calls for veterans to be housed rapidly, without preconditions like sobriety. As we learned from those who’ve worked in this field for years and from our own successes, this is the most effective, least costly way to end homelessness — period.
• We partner. The federal government and communities also count on the support of organizations of all types — businesses, nonprofits, veterans’ organizations, foundations and so many others — to help veterans secure well-paying employment, access security deposits for rental housing, remedy legal issues and furnish apartments.
Yet even as we laud our gains, we aren’t stopping to pat ourselves on the back — in fact, just the opposite. We recognize that with all the progress, there were still nearly 40,000 veterans experiencing homelessness in January of this year, and we know one homeless veteran is one too many. Letting up now is not an option.
Mims says of his own situation, “I’m living proof that you’ve got to keep going, and keep trying.”
We echo this sentiment, and see it as our guiding light: To do everything we can, for as long as it takes, until we end veteran homelessness.
Robert A. McDonald is the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs. Julian Castro is the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
©2016 Robert A. McDonald and Julian Castro
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