Advocates find success in 'housing first' to combat veteran homelessness

Advocates find success in 'housing first' to combat veteran homelessness
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Advocates for reducing homelessness among veterans are finding success in an approach that prioritizes housing as a first step before employment or treatment for substance abuse.

The “housing first” method, viewed by advocates as a key breakthrough, addresses the issue of homelessness in the veteran community from the perspective that having the security of a house is crucial to tackling other problems.

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“Once people have a roof over their head it’s a lot easier to get dressed and prep for an interview,” said Will Goodwin, director of government relations for VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization.

The government program that has played a major role is called Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. The effort gives veterans vouchers that they can use to help pay for housing, combined with support services through Veterans Affairs medical centers.

Since 2008, more than 93,000 vouchers have been awarded, according to HUD.

In a similar time period, the number of homeless veterans fell by about half. The number dropped from 74,000 in 2010 to about 38,000 last year, HUD figures show.

With the sharp decline in homelessness among veterans in the past decade, advocates are now pushing to accelerate their progress, with the goal of bringing the number as close to zero as possible.

“Overall there has been significant progress made on ending veteran homelessness,” said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “There’s still a lot more work to do.”

The homelessness problem among veterans is often fed, advocates say, by the difficulty of transitioning out of the military into civilian life when veterans can be facing health challenges, and in a time when housing affordability is a crisis in many cities.

The issue has drawn some high-profile advocates in recent years. Former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama celebrates seniors, tells them to 'breathe deep and dance your heart out' at virtual prom The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Michelle Obama working with 31 mayors on increasing voter participation MORE and Jill Biden, the wife of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' How will COVID-19 affect the Hispanic vote come November? MORE, highlighted the challenges facing homeless veterans with their Joining Forces initiative during the Obama administration.

Monet, of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said the attention former President Obama placed on the issue helped encourage local leaders to take action.

“We will not stop until every veteran who fought for America has a home in America,” Obama said in a 2016 speech. “This is something we’ve got to get done.”

More recently, Jason Kander, a veteran who was seen as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate before he took time off to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, announced an effort in July to lead an expansion of programs and initiatives to end homelessness among veterans.

Kander, a former secretary of state of Missouri, is seeking to expand a project that sets up villages of tiny homes to get veterans a roof over their heads, along with support services to help them find more permanent housing. His goal is to replicate the Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit Veterans Community Project in other cities.

“Veterans are really disproportionately overrepresented in the homelessness population,” Kander said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio in July. “So if you’re successful at ending veterans’ homelessness, you make an enormous dent in homelessness overall — which is obviously great for the country.”

Nearly 13 percent of homeless adults are veterans, even though veterans comprise only 7 percent of the overall population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Kander said the combination of small homes and support services replicate “the network and the housing situation that folks were in right before they left the military.”

“So it creates that supportive community again,” he said.

Broader policies that make housing more affordable in general would also help, advocates say. Several cities are now exploring possible solutions as residents contend with skyrocketing rents.

“There’s no one program that can solve it,” Goodwin said. “We need to address the overall issue of housing affordability.”

The push on multiple fronts to further reduce veteran homelessness comes as advocates are also expressing alarm that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE is reportedly considering a police-oriented crackdown on homeless encampments in California.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters last week.

Goodwin said homeless veterans shouldn’t have to be “worried about some type of police crackdown while they’re just trying to find a place to sleep.”