Veteran homelessness declining, still work to be done

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As some state and local governments eradicate veteran homelessness, nationwide numbers lag behind despite vast improvements

You’ve seen them before, maybe huddled around a fire under a highway overpass or perhaps holding a sign on the side of the road pleading for assistance. No matter the circumstance, the image of struggling, homeless veterans begging for spare change can be found almost anywhere across the country.

Everywhere, except in cities like New York, New Orleans and Houston, just to name a few.

That’s because for the past few years, mayors, community leaders, government agencies and local nonprofits have come together to effectively end veteran homelessness in these respective areas. In those cities, by federal definition, there are no veterans who lack housing except for those who have refused assistance.

Philadelphia is on the list, too. So are Phoenix, Las Vegas and the commonwealth of Virginia, which— according to Gov. Terry McAuliffe—matched more than 1,400 homeless veterans with permanent housing in 2015, making it the first state in the nation to functionally eliminate veteran homelessness within its borders.

In New York City, the number of homeless veterans has plummeted from 3,689 to 760—a decline of nearly 80 percent—since 2009, when President Barack Obama announced his nationwide initiative to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. More than 1,000 veterans were placed in permanent housing in the local area last year alone.

Opening Doors, which was unveiled in 2010 and is overseen by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, is the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The initiative aims to ensure every community has a systematic response in place that prevents homelessness whenever possible and focuses on “housing first.” This policy dictates that the homeless should be provided with safe, supportive shelter as a precondition for attending to the issues that caused them to slip through the cracks in the first place. According to the White House, veteran homelessness has declined 36 percent nationwide since the initiative began.

Part of Opening Doors’ success is the supportive services being offered in various housing facilities. Such services typically keep residents linked to social workers and include health services—most single homeless adults have some kind of serious physical, mental or substance abuse-related problem—and job readiness programs.

“We’ve made great inroads in eliminating veteran homelessness in our country,” said DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “From Biloxi to Syracuse and Winston-Salem to Las Cruces, the list of local municipalities that have successfully done so is astounding.”

DAV is one of the many nonprofits that has played a significant role in helping to eradicate veteran homelessness these past few years. Notably, the organization’s new employment department hosted more than 70 veteran career fairs in 40 cities in 2015, giving more than 25,000 veterans the opportunity to connect with employers. Multiple studies have shown that homelessness decreases with steady employment. Further, DAV’s flagship national service program ensures veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned, which recognizes their sacrifices and addresses financial instability.

Additionally, DAV’s Charitable Service Trust continues its efforts to support initiatives dedicated to veterans’ issues such as homelessness. Last year, the Trust awarded the Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora, Colo., a $30,000 grant to supplement the center’s efforts to provide free housing to women veterans and their families.

“When you look at a veteran who needs treatment instantaneously, we can say, ‘Hey, we have the funds, thanks to DAV, to be able to address this need with the urgency and attention it requires,’” said James Gillespie, Director of Development at Comitis.

The Trust also awarded a $60,000 grant to the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center in late 2014 to support homeless and at-risk veterans at the facility’s 2015 Winterhaven Stand Down. The annual event focuses on leading homeless and at-risk veterans to independence.

“Those are just a few examples of the numerous organizations dedicated to helping homeless veterans that the Trust has supported in recent years,” said Trust President Richard E. Marbes. “We’ll continue doing so in the many years to come. As long as even one veteran is out on the streets, our job isn’t done.”

The reality is that as more men and women leave the military—especially those changed as a result of their service—a certain number will face struggles finding meaningful employment and stable housing, in all likelihood making this a process that will require the ongoing attention of the veteran community. But this national effort has shown that through dedicated community cooperation, serious progress can be achieved both in getting veterans off the street and preventing the cycle of homelessness before it ever begins.

“The good news is, we’ve helped to get thousands of homeless veterans off the street [and] made an unprecedented effort to end veterans’ homelessness,” President Obama said in August 2014. “But we’ve got more work to do in cities and towns across America to get more veterans into the homes they deserve.”