A homeless person sleeping on America’s streets in 2010 was far more likely to be a veteran than today: while the rate of homelessness has remained relatively stagnant in the U.S., it’s dropped by about 55% among veterans, from about 74,000 in 2010 to 33,129 in 2022. Even more veterans will have a home for the holidays this year: on November 29, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it had permanently housed nearly 39,000 veterans since the start of the year, surpassing its goal for the entire year.
In an era of soaring inflation, limited housing and high rents, it may seem inevitable that some Americans become homeless, especially given that many experts have found that high housing costs are closely connected to rates of homelessness. However, those who have closely studied how to address American homelessness say that progress among veterans shows that efforts to help people can be remarkably effective if matched to the scale of the crisis.
Veteran homelessness has dropped, experts say, because the U.S. government has reached a consensus that it’s a moral necessity. Leaders from across the country have pitched in: from the halls of Congress, which have provided billions of dollars to fund programs, to local governments that maintain lists of veterans who need a place to sleep. While the federal government offers a wide range of programs that limit homelessness or factors that put people at risk, including emergency housing, health services, and jobs training, the foundation is two programs: the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. SSVF, first announced in 2010, focuses on temporary homelessness prevention and rapid-rehousing, while VASH, which has been expanded repeatedly though the last 15 years, is centered around permanent supportive housing.
“I think it gives us a blueprint of exactly what we need to do,” says Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations and the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, both at the University of California San Francisco. “And I think what the public should know is the only thing keeping us from having homelessness overall decreased dramatically is the political will to assign the resources to do it. “
Access to housing and other services is one of the main factors that distinguishes veterans from other homeless people in the U.S. While experts estimate that there is enough funding to ensure that virtually every veteran is housed—and funding for homeless veterans more than doubled between 2010 and 2017—there’s much less money for other Americans who are at risk of homelessness. Less than a quarter of Americans who are eligible by their income for rental subsidies receive them, for instance.
Scaling services to meet the need could be an effective strategy for reducing homelessness among other Americans, says Thomas Byrne, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Social Work and an investigator for the Bedford, Mass. VA health care system. “If we were to make access to those programs universal for people who meet income eligibility criteria, that would probably be the best thing that we could do for them to prevent homelessness from occurring,” says Byrne.
The VA also draws upon one of its biggest assets—its integrated health system—to identify veterans who are at risk. Since 2012, everyone who interacts with the health system is screened for homelessness or housing instability at least annually. The health system then connects veterans who are at risk with a flexible range of services. For instance, a person who is unstably housed might only receive rental subsidies, whereas another person might be placed in supportive permanent housing that can provide intensive resources like substance use or mental health treatment, perhaps through VA health services or the local community.
As most Americans don’t have access to such a comprehensive healthcare system, it would be difficult to directly copy the VA’s success. However, says Byrne, the health care system, which many homeless people interact with, could plays a role in the crisis; for instance, some states have drawn on Medicaid to help provide supportive housing. Another lesson, Kushel notes, is the efficacy of reaching homeless people “where they are”—at services they’re already using, such as through the health care system or public school. But screening only works if there are services where you can be directed—and not, for instance, if there’s a years-long waitlist for housing, as there can be for the general population.
“The most important part is if they have resources then to put to bear if the person does screen positive,” says Kushel. “You’ll get referred to people who actually have dedicated resources to end or prevent your homelessness.”
One area that the VA has strengthened over the last two decades, says Barbara Poppe, the former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, is coordinating across systems. In an effort to get as many veterans access to housing as possible, the VA has closely partnered with not only HUD, but with local communities. This means that veterans can get access not only to different housing support options, but also services like mental health therapy and programs that reduce harm from substance use. “It really can be a comprehensive package of resources that’s not as fragmented as other Americans would experience,” says Poppe.
In a broader sense, however, veteran’s big advantage is that all different parts of the government have accepted that there is a moral responsibility to end homelessness among veterans, and to see the program through over time. As Kushel notes, the U.S. has been working on the problem for more than a decade, and thousands of veterans are still unhoused. Ending homelessness among other people would require similar resolve.
“I would agree that nobody who has served their country should spend a night on the street. I also happen to believe that nobody should spend the night on the streets,” says Kushel.