In pursuit of housing that works harder for veterans

Despite the national health crisis, sometime in April, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is expected to have the data from its annual PIT (Point-in-Time Homeless Persons) Count. Through the surveying of sheltered and unsheltered individuals on a single night, the PIT process serves as an approximation of the homeless population in the nation and is a critical source of data for informing government agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) combines the results of the PIT Count with other data to help make strategic programming decisions for military veterans experiencing chronic homelessness.

In 2019, HUD reported a 2.1 percent decrease in the estimated number of homeless veterans nationwide, down from a 5.4 percent decrease in 2018. While veteran homelessness has fallen almost 50 percent since 2010, more than 37,000 veterans still experienced homelessness in January. Given the challenge of creating and preserving more affordable housing across the board, we in the industry don’t expect the 2020 count to show a marked decrease in the homeless vet population. 

But we do see paths to providing more housing options and making those options work harder for the veterans most in need.

The VASH program — Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing — is administered through HUD and operates similarly to HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance program for low-income families, with the added benefit of case management services for qualifying veterans. Eligibility requirements include income thresholds and other criteria.

One of the hallmarks of the voucher program is its emphasis on supportive housing, defined as affordable housing with social services in place for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Returning veterans who can avail themselves of a network of social services — including options for assistance with education, food subsidies, health care and job training, along with subsidized housing — often make up the VA’s most potent success stories

In the affordable communities we have built, onsite resident service programs are shown to reduce property vacancy losses, legal fees and bad debts, as well as decrease the number of skips and evictions — all of which helps increase housing stability. External providers with whom residents work, such as hospitals and social workers, aid in keeping housing stable. This is crucial, because housing stability is the cornerstone upon which homeless veterans can build a successful life. 

HUD’s VASH program is the most productive tool for veteran affordable housing available today. A recent study illuminated several reasons for the success of this partnership between VA, housing authorities and other community organizations that work with vets, as well as supportive service providers. One example cited: Based on positive relationships with landlords, the VA and housing agencies help participating vets identify available affordable units. In some cases, the VA arranges transportation for vets to visit available apartment communities and helps cover move-in expenses. Housing agencies will pre-inspect units to ensure that they meet federal housing quality standards.

Current data trends demonstrate that veterans who enroll in the VASH program are likely to remain in stable, supportive housing for over a year. 

My organization, The NHP Foundation, sees five ways to make the program even more effective:

  1. Continue to build strong community ties. People seeking affordable housing also need services, onsite and off, that allow them to create their own successful paths. Residents consistently give high marks to services such as financial literacy, health and nutrition education, and academic support for students. 
  2. Never stop lobbying Congress, which provided the framework for creating and preserving affordable housing. Advocacy must be stoked to keep VASH alive and well through successive administrations.
  3. Do your homework to learn which services have the most impact. VASH recipients will have differing needs, and polling those in need of housing to determine the most relevant services saves time and resources. Successful resident service providers put in the time to get to know residents and their needs. For example, a recent study found that returning veterans often can secure food and health care but need legal assistance to fight evictions, receive an accurate military discharge status or restore a driver’s license.
  4. Help dispel falsehoods about veteran tenancy. While many veterans do need help navigating the affordable housing system, once stably housed, they tend to stay. The HUD-VASH study analyzes how veterans moved through the program from homelessness to stable housing and why they exit the program. Approximately one-half of veterans remained in VASH housing for at least one year, and approximately two-thirds of those who left the program moved into independent housing. A later study found that 93 percent of a sample of veterans remained in VASH housing for a year.
  5. Employ veterans in your ranks. Where there is a position for which a vet is qualified, it is in everyone’s best interest to give the candidate a shot. Our military members are trained and dedicated. A Pew Research Center report finds vets of service in the post-9/11 era credit their military experience as useful in finding jobs outside the military. The report also found that “today’s veterans of prime working age generally fare at least as well in the U.S. job market as non-veterans, though there are some differences in the work they do and in which industries.”   

Richard F. Burns is president, CEO and trustee of the nonprofit affordable housing organization, The NHP Foundation, with offices in New York, Washington and Chicago. He has more than 40 years of experience as a real estate investment professional.

Tags Homeless veterans in the United States Homelessness Pew Public housing in the United States United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Vash

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