WASHINGTON – This is the final year of a Veterans Affairs Department initiative to end veteran homelessness. Advocates note that the program is working, with the number of homeless veterans decreasing by 33 percent in five years, but skeptics say America will still have thousands of homeless vets going into 2016.
“I think that many, many communities will end veteran homelessness this year,” said Steven Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The goal is utterly realistic.”
“I doubt it if it’s by the end of the year,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. said.
The VA’s Opening Doors program was started in 2010 with the goal of getting veteran homelessness to ‘functional zero’ by the end of 2015. This includes housing all veterans who are chronically homeless (homeless for more than a year or face more than three episodes of homelessness over four years), and responding quickly to episodic, short-term homelessness.
“It’s a very ambitious plan, ending veteran homelessness in five years, but putting a date and a timetable on it created urgency that has been a big factor in the decreasing number of veterans who are on the street,” National Coalition for Homeless Veterans spokesman Randy Brown said. The VA has not responded to requests for comment.
This plan provides federal resources for affordable and permanent housing, employment services and financial aid and advice. The initiative has been complemented by other efforts such as first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge, which was introduced last year to make ending veteran homelessness a priority at the local level, which experts say is key to success.
Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said communities need to be alert so they know if a veteran is homeless or about to become homeless and then respond by letting him know that help is available.
Mark Walker of the American Legion said there’s momentum behind the drop in homelessness, but some communities are skeptical they can be successful.
“I think there’s a lot to feel good about based upon best practices, but there’s still this push of ‘Can we do it, can other communities follow other communities where it’s working and make it work in their own place,’” he said. “It’s tough, but it’s doable.”
Walker, who is the deputy director of the national veterans employment and education division at the American Legion, cites cities like New Orleans and Phoenix that have made large strides to end veteran homelessness as proof.
McCain, Arizona’s senior senator and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is said Phoenix is a model in working aggressively to end veteran homelessness.
“I know that in Phoenix, Arizona we don’t have a single homeless veteran, and they should look at what Phoenix did,” McCain said. “They built facilities, and I’m very, very proud of that fact.”
Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., introduced the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2015 last week to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. The legislation proposes increased per diem payments for transitional housing assistance, increased legal services for homeless veterans and other aid to complement the VA initiative.
“The five-year plan is working,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of making sure they’re working as efficiently as possible and working together in the local communities because it goes down to the local and the individuals who are the homeless veterans and just making sure they’re served and the resources are there.”
Walker said the VA is doubling down in the remaining months of 2015 to achieve the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness.
While it is clear that progress is being made in the fight to end veteran homelessness, another hurdle looms – a new crop of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom are having trouble finding jobs and dealing with mental health problems.
“The big thing is that we need to make sure the surge (of returning veterans) needs to know what’s out there,” Walker said.
Beyond organizations, a veteran’s community can also assist in providing housing, employment, and other services.
With the end goal in sight, Walker says that roughly 50 percent of returning veterans are not ready to come back to America and that the American Legion’s concern is to appropriately channel them to the appropriate resources before they are homeless. Berg is also concerned that communities simply won’t get their acts together by the end of the year.
Looking past the end of the year, experts say the focus must shift from housing already homeless veterans to preventing veterans from becoming homeless in the first place by increasing outreach and awareness about existing programs for those who may be on the verge of losing their home.
While many experts believe Opening Doors’ plan is important and necessary, some fear its focus is too limited.
“Their only intention is to keep people housed, to prevent homelessness. I think you need to go further in terms of next steps. Instead of just ending homelessness, how do we serve these people more effectively,” said Kevin Corinth, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “When it comes to veterans, these are definitely people we want to help reintegrate back into society, so it’s really important that we have that as our objective.