The Story Behind A Formerly Homeless Veteran’s Invitation To The State Of The Union

Cynthia Dias, a formerly homeless veteran who will be a guest at the State of the Union CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
Cynthia Dias, a formerly homeless veteran who will be a guest at the State of the Union CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

Cynthia Dias is one of the lucky few Americans selected to get a seat at President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

Dias is a veteran, having served as a nurse during the Vietnam War. She also experienced homelessness after her service, which she attributes to her struggles with PTSD. But for the last year, she’s been living in a supportive housing complex in Las Vegas, Nevada called Veterans Village, where formerly homeless veterans can find a place to live as well as services such as physical and mental health care and job referral and training.

Dias’s invitation highlights one of the administration’s efforts: a challenge to mayors across the country to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and to end it for other groups in the following years. Las Vegas was one of the cities to meet that goal, as were 18 others and the state of Virginia. And the invite likely signals that Obama will highlight the challenge, and the achievements it’s reached, in his address.

That might help ensure that this issue makes it into the presidential campaign and gets on the agenda for whoever next occupies the White House, according to Richard Cho, senior policy director at the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. “I’m hoping the fact that the president is highlighting this issue, and the first lady is highlighting this issue, will be a way to signal that this is a place where federal leadership can really make a difference,” he said. “Particularly around the veterans goal, it demonstrated that when the federal government provides leadership what a difference that can make.”

Over Obama’s tenure, homelessness among the country’s veterans has declined by 35 percent, or 25,642 fewer people without homes. Beyond the places to meet the full goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of last year, others ended chronic homelessness among their veteran populations. That can be easier than housing all homeless vets, a larger number that requires enough affordable housing units to be able to place them, which many larger cities are struggling with.

But the whole initiative has proven at least one thing: ending homelessness is achievable. “We’re no longer talking about whether it’s possible to achieve an end to veteran homelessness. We know it’s possible now,” Cho said. “We can choose to do this, or not choose to do this.”

And there should be even more success stories in 2016. He said the agency is getting a “continuous stream” of communities seeking to have it certify them as having ended veteran homelessness, about half of which are confirmable. “I’m feeling very personally optimistic that we’ll have a significant number of communities over the next few months being able to get there,” he said. It’s also signaling to cities that although the 2015 deadline has come and gone, the effort is ongoing and new cities can still make a pledge, although there is no specific new deadline to aim for. “Just because communities didn’t get there by 2015 is no reason to stop,” he said. “We’re committed to achieving the goal on the earliest timeframe.”

Thus far, however, Cho says he’s disappointed with the role the issue of homelessness has played in the race for president — which is to say, none at all. “I think it’s really disappointing, especially given that we have many communities where they’re feeling an uptick in homelessness and things are reaching a crisis level,” he said. Lawmakers have called the situation facing their homeless populations states of emergency in the cities of Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle and in the entire state of Hawaii. And while homelessness declined 2 percent between 2014 and 2015, at the current rate it won’t be eradicated for another 40 years.

“Homelessness in the context of a national affordable housing crisis is something that I’m hoping more people will talk about,” he said. After all, there used to be a surplus of affordable housing units, but there is now a deficit of 5.5 million.

Cho and his agency also want to make sure that the progress that has been made during Obama’s tenure isn’t allowed to fade away after he leaves office. “What we hope to do is set in motion a few things this year that will make sure the work continues into the next administration,” he said. Part of that will be making it clear that the gains made in ending veteran homelessness will only be sustained as long as the considerable resources Congress has allocated toward the issue are sustained. It also means ensuring there are systems in place to keep housing homeless veterans “regardless of who’s in the White House and who’s in city halls or statehouses.”

The point of setting a goal to end veteran homelessness was never meant to only address veterans’ needs, but to also prove that certain approaches work and can be applied to all other groups of homeless people across the country. “That’s the big focus for this year, to really shine a light on the things that worked well for ending veteran homelessness,” Cho said. Things like a housing first approach — which aims to put people into housing, stabilizing their lives, before addressing other needs and concerns — and targeting resources to the people with particular needs.

But that secondary goal has been much harder to achieve. Cho said Congress has increased funding for supportive veteran housing eight-fold and for rapid rehousing six-fold. That sense of urgency has yet to translate to other homeless people. “We’ve not seen anything near that investment for other groups,” he said. The original goal was to end all chronic homelessness by the end of this year, but that had to be pushed back to 2017 when Congress failed to provide resources for the housing units necessary to get there. There has been even less attention devoted to the needs of homeless families and youth. “We’re facing the reality that we will not be able to achieve that goal because we’re facing a significant shortfall in resources,” he said.


This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the government changed the goal for ending chronic homelessness to 2017, rather than getting rid of it altogether.