The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported a slight decline in the number of homeless people nationwide — 2.3% fewer than in 2013.
One can quarrel with the figure. And four major advocacy organizations have, arguing, among other things, that the definition of “homeless” that communities must use for their counts excludes a very large number of people, including youth and families with children.
More reliable, I think, are figures showing a marked drop in the number of homeless veterans — 10.5% fewer than in 2013 and 32.6% than in 2009. No other group the one-night counts break out experienced anything close.
Even in the District of Columbia, where the total number of homeless people increased by nearly 13% — and the number of homeless families by more than 25% — the number of homeless veterans ticked down. And it had plummeted by 42% since 2009.
Two cities claim they’ve ended chronic homelessness for veterans. And recent figures reportedly indicate that the District is about a third of the way toward ending it for all veterans by the end of 2015 — the goal Mayor Gray and at least 224 of his counterparts adopted from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
USICH made ending veteran homelessness a first order of business for the federal agencies it includes — and by extension, state and local governments, nonprofits and others in the private sector.
And what the results tell us, I think, is that sometimes throwing money at a problem goes a long way toward solving it.
HUD has used dedicated funding to provide about 68,000* housing vouchers to local public housing agencies since 2008. Congress has appropriated $75 million for these vouchers every year, but one since Fiscal Year 2009 — and apparently is set to do so again.
The PHAs must have a local healthcare center nearby to provide case management and other services. These are funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
No separate line item in the budget for these, but the account VA draws on is said to be “generally robustly funded.” And indeed, the Secretary recently invited nonprofits to apply for a total of $93 million in grants.
So the jointly-funded program represents a quite large federal investment in permanent housing, with supportive services for homeless veterans — mostly those qualifying as chronically homeless.
HUD attributes the marked decline in veteran homelessness mainly to this program. And it seems reasonable to believe that the long-term decline in chronic homelessness is related — 30% fewer individuals since 2007.
Yet USICH had to push back its goal for ending chronic homelessness because, says its executive director, “[W]e haven’t been willing to invest $300 million to create the affordable housing that’s needed.” She’s apparently referring to Congress — certainly not to USICH.
She’s hopeful that progress on veteran homelessness will show that “when we put appropriations behind … [the right solution] we can drive change.”
“We do think we can get to the point of saying there are no more homeless veterans in the country,” she tells a real estate news reporter. And that will show we can achieve the same for other populations as well, “if we set our mind to it.”
Kurt Runge, Director of Advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, says something similar about the campaign to move veterans in the District off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. “Not only can we end chronic veteran homelessness, but we can end all homelessness.”
That doesn’t mean we will, however — or even seriously try to. Veterans have a privileged place in our policymaking and budget choices.
So, as Bryce Covert at Think Progress, astutely says, “[T]he danger is that while some groups have bipartisan support and will meet their goals, progress will end there.” The head of the National Coalition for the Homeless, whom she quotes, thinks “some folks” will consider the job done when the veterans goal is met.
All of which makes the cheering figures on homeless veterans — and the well-financed, energetic support for housing the rest — somewhat bittersweet news.