The Government Is Proving That Homelessness Is A Solvable Problem


Since 2010, homelessness among the country’s veterans has fallen 33 percent, and the number of veterans sleeping on the street has fallen nearly 40 percent, a number of government agencies announced this week.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) announced that data from the annual Point-in-Time Count of the homeless population from January shows that there are currently 49,933 homeless veterans, which is a reduction of 24,837 people over the past four years.

The agencies point to the fact that they have focused on Housing First, which, as it sounds, gives the homeless housing before addressing other issues they may face, and increased federal spending through a HUD and VA voucher program. That program has served 74,019 veterans since 2008.

“As a nation, we have proven that homelessness is a problem we can solve,” said U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Laura Green Zeilinger in a press release.

The government’s goal is to end veteran homelessness by 2015. To speed up progress, it dedicated an additional $14 million in November on top of the nearly $8 million it had set aside. First Lady Michelle Obama also launched the “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness” in the spring, and more than 210 mayors and other officials have signed on. Those that are working to end veteran homelessness are using similar approaches to what’s being done at the federal level: they are focusing on Housing First, prioritizing the most vulnerable veterans such as those experiencing chronic homelessness, using other programs for vets who aren’t eligible for VA housing programs, and increasing preventative services so they remain housed, among others.

Those were the tactics used in Phoenix and Salt Lake City, both of which have ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Chronic homelessness means going without shelter for at least a year or four episodes over the past three years with a disability. This population has the highest rates of health and substance abuse problems, which makes them more vulnerable and also means they are a bigger strain on emergency services. Both cities focused on this high-risk population with the Housing First tactic that was coupled with resources like job training and health care. A similar campaign got 207 homeless veterans, including 96 experiencing chronic homelessness, into housing in Washington, D.C. in just 100 days.

The Housing First approach, which assumes that the homeless have a better chance of staying housed if they are given a stable home base before dealing with any mental health, substance abuse, or physical health problems, can serve more than just homeless veterans. There are more than 600,000 Americans going without shelter on any given night, with over 100,000 chronically homeless, who could also use some focused attention. While homelessness has declined by 9 percent since 2007 and chronic homelessness has dropped 25 percent, progress isn’t nearly as fast as for veterans.

And while it certainly takes resources to address homelessness, it may cost more to do nothing at all. The costs of putting the homeless in jail for violating ordinances or putting them in the hospital for emergency care are three times as expensive as helping them find a place to live. One Florida county spent more than $5 million over a decade jailing just 37 homeless people; on the other hand, one apartment complex for the homeless in North Carolina saved $1.8 million in its first year.