contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
In 2007 the HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program was established as a collaboration between HUD and the VA to provide rental assistance vouchers and supportive services to veterans at risk for homelessness. A few years later, in 2013 the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program was initiated. This program awards grants to private organizations providing supportive care to homeless veterans as they transition to permanent housing.
These two initiatives helped the U.S. realize a significant decline in the percentage of homeless veterans; however, over the past few years progress has stalled. On April 12th, VA Secretary Denis McDonough and HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge issued a joint statement announcing that the two departments will be working together to ensure veterans have access to safe, stable housing.
There is significant disparity in the homelessness rates among veterans compared to civilians, which is why this joint effort between HUD and the VA is so vital.
There are several factors which influence homelessness (and solutions to homelessness) in any subset of Americans. Veterans are much more vulnerable to these risk factors than the average (non-G.I.) Joe.
The risk of homelessness increases significantly when living expenses total more than 50% of income. Unfortunately, upon separation from the military, many veterans find it difficult to secure gainful employment.
Furthermore, veterans who are entitled to disability pay must often wait for six months to a year before paperwork is approved and assistance granted, contributing to the potential for veterans to fall below the poverty line. And lastly, a systemic lack of affordable housing compounds this problem.
Social networks are particularly important to those in crisis and those who need temporary help. Veterans can be more likely to withdrawal socially upon return from deployment and they tend to have low marriage and high divorce rates. In fact, 20% of veterans in the U.S. are living alone today. In short, our Nation’s veterans can find themselves lacking support when it is needed most.
It’s no secret that mental health disorders are a huge risk factor for homelessness in the United States, and this is especially true in the veteran population. Nearly half of homeless vets are suffering from a serious mental illness, and one of the strongest predictors of Veteran homelessness is a PTSD diagnosis.
There are several potential reasons for this. Most likely, according to experts, is that many veterans experiencing PTSD do not receive adequate treatment for their disability. Consequently they may struggle to maintain jobs and connect with friends and families. As mentioned above, financial instability and lack of social support are both contributing factors to homelessness in general. The high incidence of untreated PTSD among veterans puts them at increased risk for losing permanent housing options.
Substance use often goes hand in hand with homelessness in the United States. Sometimes addiction can be the result of homelessness, but it is often a contributing factor. This is because addiction disorders disrupt relationships and can make it difficult to maintain employment. Furthermore, studies show that once a person loses his or her home, the motivation to stop abusing their drug(s) of choice begins to decrease, thus making it even more difficult to secure permanent housing.
Veterans are at increased risk for developing dependencies on drugs or alcohol. Exposure to trauma, the need for prescription medication to manage pain caused by combat-related injuries, and unwillingness to seek treatment for fear of being stigmatized can all contribute to the development or worsening of substance abuse disorders in veterans. Today, it is estimated that 70% of homeless veterans are struggling with substance abuse.
While the problem of veteran homelessness in America might appear unmanageable, significant progress has been made. In fact, recent initiatives surrounding homeless veteran assistance have been so successful that government agencies are looking to create similar initiatives in support of other homeless populations. But we still have work to do.
There are a variety of ways to get involved and provide help for homeless veterans. The VA is always looking for volunteers to assist with various services for homeless vets, as is the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Small businesses and non-profits can also collaborate with the VA to provide housing opportunities and other services to homeless veterans.
If you or a veteran you know is at imminent risk of homelessness, contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at (877) 4AID-VET, walk into a local VA Medical Center, or visit a Community Resource and Referral Center.