Even one veteran unable to find a place to live is one too many. Putting numbers on the crisis of veteran homelessness is a valuable way to see whether a resolution to the problem is in sight and whether housing efforts are moving in the right direction.
Near the end of every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development releases its annual statistics on the state of homelessness in America, which includes data and analysis on, among other things, homeless veterans. This year’s HUD report showed how starkly different areas of the country struggle or succeed at solving this crisis. General homelessness rose in 2017 compared to 2016, but startling patterns have emerged that show how minor regional declines across the country have been offset by precipitous increases in a few locations. According to HUD, cost-of-living increases in already expensive areas are a major culprit.
Whether it’s becoming easier or more difficult for homeless veterans to find stable accommodations is a complex question. The answer largely depends on location. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin expressed in a press release that the agency is pleased with its ability to decrease the amount of veteran homelessness in a majority of communities. Despite those declines, however, the national rate of veteran homelessness is up 1.5 percent year over year. Which areas are dragging these numbers up?
HUD reported that one region in particular is putting strain on veterans looking for housing: Los Angeles County, specifically the city of Los Angeles. Veteran homelessness in that county rose 64 percent between January 2016 and January 2017. Such a huge increase in such a populous county appears to have pushed the national rate upward. Without Los Angeles in the figures, veteran homelessness fell 3.2 percent over the past year.
Why? A sheer lack of affordable housing is failing Los Angeles veterans.
HUD not only measures levels of veteran homelessness. It is also one of the organizations handling programs to improve conditions and reduce the number of vets with no shelter to turn to.
Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans nationwide has fallen by more than 480,000, if accounting for vets and their families. HUD stated that its cooperation with the VA has enabled this massive change. But until recently, the VA planned to significantly cut funding to a HUD-assisted housing voucher program for veterans, a measure now abandoned after public backlash. Politico reported that the $460 million program would have basically ended had the VA submitted its budget as initially proposed. Only significant outcry and criticism got the agency to walk back its decision.
Messaging on homelessness reduction programs has wavered in recent months. The decision to cut the program seems to have been made unilaterally by the VA in September without consultation with HUD. Then, on Nov. 27, Shulkin and HUD Secretary Ben Carson stated they were committed to ending veteran homelessness, even speaking at a shelter. Four days later, Dec. 1, they officially stated they were killing the housing program and giving the funds to VA hospitals. Days after, the initiative returned.
Efforts to end veteran homelessness are nowhere near over. Every night, according to this year’s HUD report, an average of over 40,000 vets go without shelter. Official programs and affordable housing are important factors in reducing that number in the years to come.