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The biggest drop in the number of homeless veterans in over half a decade teeters on pandemic-era as

Homeless U.S. veteran tents at the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Campus Japanese Garden on Sept. 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Homeless U.S. veteran tents at the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Campus Japanese Garden on Sept. 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced an 11% drop in homeless veterans since the start of the pandemic, the largest drop in more than half a decade.

Still, more than 33,000 veterans remain unhoused in the U.S. Being unhoused, regardless of veteran status, is a pervasive issue in the United States. Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, says many reasons veterans face homelessness are the same reasons anyone might: a drought of affordable housing, stagnant and insufficient wages, and the effects of “systemic and institutional racism and colonialism and all of the ‘isms’ that ail society today.”

Veterans face a unique set of challenges that have historically made them a disproportionate number of the nation’s homeless population. And within the numbers of homeless veterans, minority groups are even more so disproportionately represented, with groups like Native Americans accounting for more than three times their share of the veteran population, a potentially conservative estimate.

Some veterans have flimsy community networks as a result of moving often during service, Monet says, or difficulties transitioning to the civilian job market with skills important to military service but not necessarily to most employers.

“Other folks are dealing with trauma that they’ve experienced or that has been put upon them,” Monet says.

While many factors played a role in the decline, the “game changer,” Monet says, is a focus on responding to homelessness by providing housing.

“There are a number of factors that really play into this success … since the start of this initiative, [the] VA has really switched its approach to focusing on housing first and housing-focused interventions,” Monet says. “And that’s not to say that there aren’t any services or treatment or supports or employment services available for veterans, because there are. But, the main, number one goal of a lot of the homeless programs is now housing.”

This newfound focus on housing is in part a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the Biden Administration’s passage of the 2021 American Rescue Plan offered an array of housing assistance programs aimed at both keeping people in and finding people homes. The Plan had specific provisions for the veteran community, including funds to support homeless veterans.

Unfortunately, much of the pandemic assistance is no longer available to communities, and in looking at the “VA’s specific authorities for veterans, a lot of that is available, but its existence is legislatively tied to the end of the public health emergency,” says Monet.

And in addressing disparities within the homeless veteran population, programs are “small and underfunded,” Monet says. This means that there could be a rebound in homelessness rates in the future if more is not done.

“When you’re doing street outreach, if all you have to offer a veteran is a warm blanket or a granola bar because there’s no housing or you don’t have any more rapid rehousing funding until the new fiscal year, it’s really hard to convince them to continue to work with you and continue to engage and to move forward with their lives,” she says. “We’ve been really pushing for legislative change to create more permanency among some of the really great innovations that we’ve seen occur in our system during the pandemic.”

Interview Highlights

On why veterans face higher rates of homelessness

“There are many reasons that veterans experience homelessness. And some of the reasons are very similar to the reasons that civilians struggle with housing stability … But I do think there are some specific things that relate to veterans status that can be challenging. For certain folks, because you’re moving around so much, you don’t really develop that same depth of community network that you can rely on in a crisis. For others, they may have jobs that don’t necessarily transfer well to the civilian job market. Other folks are dealing with trauma that they’ve experienced or that has been put upon them. In the case of military sexual trauma or other things that is undealt with or leads to a spiral out of control. You do see this confluence of factors that combines with all of the pressures that anyone looking for housing in their community and in our country right now is facing. And it just makes it challenging.”

On the heavy racial disparities present among unhoused veterans

“That is something that a lot of us in the community of practitioners and within the federal government are working to unpack in a more comprehensive way. [The] VA is on the forefront in terms of having available data and being able to start to draw conclusions from that data. But if I’m being honest, we’re a little bit of a ways away from having the level of targeted solutions that I’d like to see.”

On past goals to end veteran homelessness and what’s realistic

“I’m struggling with that a little bit, because in my opinion, I think a realistic goal would be that every community has enough affordable housing and supportive services so that when a veteran falls into homelessness, they wouldn’t ever have to experience homelessness for more than a week. Being homeless is terrible. It’s hard outside. It’s almost the wintertime. It’s cold. It’s not safe for people out there. And so I think as much as I appreciate realism, I have to believe that we live in a world where people care enough about their neighbors to do what it takes to create the resources and support available to help people thrive in their communities.”


Devin Speak produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Speak adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.