Lancaster County in Pennsylvania announced that as of July, it has no more homeless veterans.
At the beginning of the year, 26 veterans lived on the streets or in emergency shelter. But now the county has reached “functional zero,” meaning that if and when veterans become homeless in the future, it has a system in place and the capacity to immediately get them back into permanent housing. Veterans had made up about 10 percent of the county’s 359-strong homeless population.
The county has signed onto the national goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year but got there early thanks to increased outreach to the homeless population and using federal funding and housing vouchers.
Lancaster isn’t the first place to reach the goal this year. New Orleans, Houston, and Las Cruces, New Mexico have all already announced they ended veteran homelessness, while the state of Connecticut and cities of Phoenix and Salt Lake City ended chronic homelessness among vets. Other major cities have committed to getting there by the end of the year, including New York City, which is well on its way.
The point of the federal initiative isn’t just to make sure that those who serve their country have a place to call home. It’s also to prove that mass homelessness, a relatively recent phenomenon, can be reversed with the right resources and attention. After ending veteran homelessness, the government has committed to ending all chronic homeless by 2016 and homelessness among children, youth, and families by 2020.
And while the country now has more than 600,000 homeless people on a given night, those kind of numbers only arose in the 1980s at the same time that affordable housing dried up. In 1970, there was a surplus of affordable units; today there’s a 5.5 million shortage. There are a number of ways to plug that hole, but one of them is putting funding into the National Housing Trust Fund, as the government finally started doing in January, which if fully funded could create 1 million affordable homes over a decade.
Putting the homeless into housing, rather than letting them stay on the streets, might come with costs. But they would also likely be outweighed by savings in health and police spending, as many different places have already found.