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The Great American Tragedy: Homelessness Among our Veterans

According to numbers collected on a single night last January, 57,849 Veterans were living homeless on the streets of this nation’s cities, which is an eight percent decline since 2012 and a 24 percent decline since 2010.

The homeless are often looked down upon in American society, and the true tragedy is seeing our heroic Soldiers fall to this. What we often don’t understand is what would cause our Soldiers to give up on their ambition and dreams and to live outside on the corner of Main Street. Many of us do not understand this because we do not know, as our Veterans do, the experience of war. (i)

After their service has ended, some Veterans deal with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or sexual trauma. After dealing with difficult experiences in war, some Veterans desire a life of seclusion.  While some choose not to get help, others are unable to seek necessary help. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Veterans are the most likely group to experience long-term, chronic homelessness. (ii)

Thirteen percent of all homeless adults are Veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (iii) Eight percent of those homeless veterans are female.(iv)

When faced with these statistics, you might wonder why the government seems to have failed to help our homeless Veterans. While we may not currently see the visible impact from government programs, they are there, and they are helping. In 2011, President Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki set the goal to end chronic homelessness among Veterans by 2015. When they set this goal, President Obama implemented a plan called Opening Doors, which aims to prevent and end homelessness.

VA , HUD and local agencies across the country conduct point-in-time counts on Jan. 31, 2013, to get a statistically reliable, unduplicated count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless Veterans, individuals and families in the U.S. (Robert Turtil/VA)

Opening Doors has five main themes and from those, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has identified five key areas for strategic action. The first is to provide affordable housing to Veterans and the second is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. Supportive housing is shown to be one of the most effective bridges between homelessness and independent housing. A study conducted as part of the Federal Collaborative Initiative to Help End Chronic-Homelessness concluded that 95 percent of participants were in independent housing after spending one year in permanent supportive housing. (v)

The third focus is to increase meaningful and sustainable employment by matching Veterans’ skills with work, so that they will want to remain in jobs for a long period of time.

The fourth is to reduce financial vulnerability by enhancing information, reducing barriers and improving access to services. The emphasis is on making homeless Veterans aware of the government programs available to help them.

The fifth and final focus is transforming the homeless crisis response system. This is the point at which the government partners with the community. There needs to be a quicker response to homeless Veterans showing up in a city. People who take notice can spread the word to these Veterans about the help that is available to them.

Government programs help many Veterans. According to VA, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families helped approximately 35,000 adults and children receive assistance in the first year alone. (vi) This still leaves thousands of Veterans and their families homeless. Although the VA pushes to end Veteran homelessness by 2015, that possibility is nearly impossible without the help of others. VA has just announced the availability of up to approximately $600 million in grants for non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives that serve very low-income Veteran families occupying permanent housing through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.

Still, VA cannot do it alone. Organizations and individuals in communities across the country are integral to providing services to Veterans and spreading the word about the resources VA provides to end and prevent homelessness among Veterans.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has found that the most effective programs are “community-based, nonprofit ‘Veterans helping Veterans’ groups. The Veteran will feel a greater connection when the community reaches out to help, encouraging him or her to ’pay it forward’ to other Veterans.”

Find more information on the plan to end Veteran homelessness, as well as information about what you can do to help the homeless Veterans in your community here.

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