With many soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the late 2000s, the risk of homelessness significantly increased for veterans. Looking to avoid the difficulties that plagued so many Vietnam veterans, Congress, in 2009, authorized a veterans’ homelessness prevention and intervention demonstration program in support of President Barack Obama’s goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by 2016.
The Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs (VA), and Labor departments collaborated to implement the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD), an ambitious program that aimed to prevent homelessness among veterans.
The Urban Institute evaluated VHPD and found the outcomes for the 509 study participants promising. To learn more about this program, read the research.
After serving more than a dozen years in the army and the National Guard Reserve, Jannet Taylor, 50, found herself on the edge of homelessness in June 2012. Taylor experienced a sudden slew of challenges. She needed help, but felt great reluctance asking for it.
Housing insecurity is a significant problem among veterans. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, approximately 1.5 million veterans are paying more than 50 percent of their income toward rent. Paying too much for rent leaves little room in a household's budget, making it difficult to save money or plan for emergencies. These circumstances leave veterans at risk for homelessness.
Veterans are overrepresented in the overall homeless population: though they make up only 8 percent of the total population, they are about 11 percent of all homeless adults counted in HUD’s January 2014 point-in-time counts.
Similarly, more women veterans are becoming homeless. HUD data show that, in 2013, an additional 1,891 women veterans received emergency shelter or transitional housing services.
And homeless women veterans face unique obstacles to stable housing, such as a higher risk of having experienced sexual trauma while in the military.
These trends reflect the large increase in women who joined the military over the last decade. The US Government Accountability Office estimates that approximately 1.8 million—or 8 percent—of veterans are now women.
The transient nature of homelessness makes getting flawless population counts near impossible, however, in 2014, HUD estimated that 49,933 veterans were homeless on any given night.
Source: Henry, Cortes, Shivji, and Buck, 2014, The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 1 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness, Washington, DC: US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
With a large number of future veterans on the horizon, it is a critical time for preventing the next generation from slipping into poverty and homelessness. VHPD provides many lessons that policymakers can use to craft solutions going forward.
Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Policy and Planning (special tablulations produced at the request of the Urban Institute for this project).
Veterans in Central Texas can come to this office at the VA’s Austin Outpatient Clinic to seek help when they are on the verge of losing their housing or are without a place to live. The facility opened in July 2013, more than two years after VHPD was rolled out, and was used as a place to enroll veterans in the demonstration program.
In 2009, four-star, army General Eric Shinseki became the seventh VA secretary. At the top of his to-do list was forming a strategy to combat homelessness among veterans and launching a campaign to end it. Several housing assistance programs are critical to this effort. The HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program provides permanent housing plus services to veterans in need; Supportive Services for Veteran Families provides rapid re-housing and prevention; and VHPD targeted recent veterans, focusing primarily on homelessness prevention.
Specifically, VHPD provided short- to medium-term housing assistance and supports that aimed to keep veterans from becoming homeless, or help those who were homeless get housing quickly. Simultaneously, it aimed to help veterans access benefits and generate the income and earnings they need to prevent housing instability in the future.
For its part, the VA awarded $5 million to VA grantees to provide case management and outreach services for the VHPD program.
Led by then secretary Shaun Donovan, HUD also played a prominent role in the administration and execution of VHPD.
Working with the VA and the US Department of Labor, HUD selected five military bases and their surrounding communities to be the proving grounds for VHPD. Each site received $2 million from HUD for outreach and programming.
The Department of Labor served VHPD participants through its existing veteran employment programs.
VHPD was implemented in five areas: New York (upstate); San Diego, California; Tacoma, Washington; Tampa Bay, Florida; and Texas (central).
The demonstration became one of the first programs to exclusively serve at-risk veterans and their families and the only one to specifically target post-9/11, women, National Guard, and reserve-unit veterans, as well as those with children.
It operated from 2011 to 2014 and served 4,824 adults and children, including 2,023 veterans. The demonstration primarily focused on homelessness prevention, but it also used rapid re-housing strategies to help veterans who recently became homeless.
Between the partner agencies and organizations, an array of services was provided to enrollees, including housing assistance and connections to health care and employment services that aimed to put veterans on paths to long-term housing sustainability.
To date, the campaign to end veterans' homelessness has made substantial progress. According to HUD’s 2014 point-in-time count, the number of homeless veterans is down 33 percent since 2009. There is more work to be done.
Using the lessons learned from the VHPD program, the Obama administration, future administrations, HUD, the VA, and the Department of Labor can continue to reduce the number of homeless veterans.
Central Texas is home to 252,000 veterans, and VHPD’s success in this region showcases some promising strategies and practices that could aid in the fight to end homelessness among veterans.
Within the region’s borders stands Fort Hood, a massive 214,000-acre base that is home to more than 45,000 soldiers and about 9,000 civilian employees, making it the most populated US military base in the world.
Like Jannet Taylor, many veterans who were based at Fort Hood during their time of service stay in the area after leaving the military.
Covering more than 5,000 square miles of territory in Central Texas, VHPD served veterans living in Bell, Coryell, McLennan, Travis, and Williamson counties.
After leaving the Army, Taylor drove a school bus, worked as a teacher’s assistant, served in the National Guard Reserve, and completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Tarleton State University, all while raising her daughter on her own.
After completing her degree in 2004, Taylor began her career in nonprofit social service work. But all of that came crashing to a halt when her employer’s grant funding ran out and her position was eliminated.
At risk was Taylor’s rental home, where she and her daughter had lived since 2011 and where she had fought and beat stage-three breast cancer.
But Taylor worked in social services for eight years and was keenly aware of the attitudes that many show toward homeless people seeking help.
On the brink of losing her rental housing, Taylor learned of VHPD when she went to The Salvation Army for help with paying her electric bill. While in line, she was given outreach materials for the new program.
After a friend encouraged her to follow up on the tip, Taylor went to the Killeen Heights Vet Center in Harker Heights and enrolled in VHPD.
From there, a case worker from The Salvation Army set up short-term financial supports that helped her pay for her rent and utility bills.
The caseworker also sent a letter to Taylor’s landlord explaining what VHPD was and how it was going to ensure the rent got paid on time.
With eviction staved off, Taylor’s next challenge was to find the income she needed to pay for her housing and living expenses.
Taylor worked with her VHPD employment coach to polish her résumé, search for jobs, practice for interviews, dress for success, and mentally prepare for the rigors of job hunting and working.
“He was like, ‘you’re dressed, ready to go, ready for a job. Dress like you’re going to work. It will happen,’” Taylor said.
Four months after enrolling in VHPD, Taylor found a job that helped her earn enough money to afford her rent and bills.
Only 19 percent of VHPD participants in Texas had full-time jobs when they entered the program compared with 41 percent six months to a year after exiting it.
Many of the veterans VHPD served could not work because of service-connected disabilities. Caseworkers helped them navigate through the system and get them signed up to receive the compensation they earned.
But none of this was possible without the collaborative work of the organizations on the ground.
In Central Texas, The Salvation Army, which had an established presence in all five target counties and a history of working on large-scale projects, was selected to manage and run VHPD.
The VA partner was the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, located in Killeen, where Fort Hood lies. The program also involved the Killeen Heights Vet Center, where outreach workers contacted and enrolled veterans in need.
The Department of Labor’s partner was the Texas Veterans Commission, which oversaw veteran-specific employment specialists.
The partners collaborated to create a service plan to meet the needs of veterans and provide dedicated staff to run the program.
The agencies also worked together to develop a plan for all enrolled veterans, who were required to meet with their case managers from each agency regularly and work the plan.
Stepping back and looking at VHPD as a whole, one sees that the program offers some promising, but not conclusive, results:
• Across all sites, 75 percent of clients who entered the demonstration were at risk of homelessness and 25 percent were homeless. When they exited, 85 percent were stably housed.
• Six months after exiting, 76 percent of all study participants were in their own place, 18 percent lived with someone else, and 6 percent were homeless. About 10 percent of those interviewed at follow-up had experienced homelessness since the baseline interview.
• Only 25 percent of VHPD clients were working at program entry compared with 43 percent at follow-up interviews.
• Average monthly income increased from $1,076 at entry to $1,519 at follow-up interviews.
However, because of the lack of a comparison group in the evaluation study, it is impossible to attribute these results to the program.
Before expanding homelessness prevention programs, we need to know more about how to efficiently target assistance to those most likely to become homeless. The next steps are developing better targeting tools, testing approaches using an experimental design (treatment and control groups), and understanding the return on investment for these efforts.
What happened in Central Texas shows strong potential for the strategies employed during the VHPD program. But what does that mean in the broader context of the campaign to end homelessness?
From November 2012 to September 2014, Taylor worked at the VA as an integral part of its Vocational Rehabilitation Therapy program in Temple, Texas.
Using her background in the military and social services, as well as her personal experiences, Taylor helped veterans wrestle with the kinds of job-seeking challenges she had faced just months earlier.
Today, Taylor works as a VA medical support assistant. Answering phone calls from veterans every day, she helps connect them with the medical professionals and facilities that can treat their physical and mental wounds.
Helping veterans in need makes Taylor feel good because she understands how easily a stroke of bad luck, or past wounds, can hamstring someone who has given so much for their country.
“I am in a good place now,” Taylor said. “That program was part of putting me in a good place. Yes, I had some difficult times, but then, I guess without the rain, you can’t enjoy the sunshine.”
Ending homelessness among veterans is a difficult, but not impossible, task.
Preventing homelessness or making it as brief as possible is critical to the effort. It’s also the hardest to understand. More research is needed, but VHPD provides promising results and lessons learned that merit further exploration.
The Urban Institute’s Housing Assistance Matters Initiative is funded by Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine our research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts. Further information on the Urban Institute’s funding principles is available at www.urban.org/support.
Associated Press photos from Robert Ray, Stephen B. Morton, Mark Wilson, Paul Morigi, as well as an official White House photo by Pete Souza were used in this presentation