Despite five years and billions of dollars, President Obama failed to meet his goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, though officials say they have cut the rate by 36 percent and made progress with better care for veterans in communities across the country.
The goal of the 2010 Opening Doors program was to try to reach “functional zero” in homelessness, which means communities are able to identify veterans as they lose their homes and speed them into new housing.
Twelve cities, three counties and one state, Virginia, say they have ended veteran homelessness altogether. Connecticut says it has ended chronic homelessness.
More victories are on the horizon. New York’s homeless veteran population is down 75 percent since 2012, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said in November that the remaining 1,000 or so homeless would get help by the end of this year.
Progress also shows in national numbers. More than 25,000 veterans have left the streets since 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Nearly 14,000 fewer veterans are in unsheltered locations, and nearly 12,000 fewer veterans are in shelters and transitional housing.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen such amazing progress,” said Baylee Crone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Veteran homelessness, street homelessness, folks out under bridges, living in tents, living in doorways of businesses, those vets have left the streets and over 40 percent have moved into sheltered status.”
Mr. Obama laid out the goal in 2009, saying there should be “zero tolerance” in letting those who have served the country to go homeless. He said reducing homelessness was a top priority for his administration.
In the five years since, the federal government has spent more than $16 billion to tackle the problem, with mixed results.
An estimated 47,000 veterans were homeless at the beginning of the year, when the Department of Veterans Affairs and HUD conducted their annual one-night survey to get a snapshot of the problem.
The VA has consistently increased spending, but results haven’t always followed, said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“It’s entirely unclear if VA’s homelessness prevention efforts are providing a bridge to an independent, purpose-filled life or simply a permanent, government-sponsored home,” Mr. Miller said. “The fact that VA increases in spending on homeless initiatives are growing every year and far outpacing reductions in veteran homelessness calls into question the efficacy of VA’s efforts.”
He pointed to the VA’s Special Homeless Initiatives budgets, which went from less than $376 million in 2009 to more than $1.5 billion in 2014. But the rate of housing people decreased from 2014 to 2015, and the number of homeless veterans went down by only 2,000.
One of the biggest hurdles has been getting local governments to do more. They’re the ones who work with landlords to arrange housing, run the job-training programs the veterans use to get back to work and police unfair practices that leave veterans struggling.
“The program has made a big impact, but it isn’t 100 percent done,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Mainly at the local level, people need to buy into the idea of housing first more. It’s happened a lot, but it’s not 100 percent.”
The government used to apply a “graduated” housing system, treating veterans at each stage of housing to show they deserved permanent housing.
But veterans weren’t graduating, so the government decided to house veterans first and then give them services.
Supporting veterans in subsidized housing saves the government millions of dollars in the long run, said Anthony Love, senior adviser and director of community engagement for the Veterans Health Administration’s homeless programs. Otherwise, these veterans cycle in and out of emergency rooms, jails and detox centers, all on the government’s dime.
To get mayors across the country to back Opening Doors, the National League of Cities joined the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and first lady Michelle Obama last year to promote the Mayors Challenge.
Over 700 mayors, nine governors and many local leaders have signed up for the challenge.
“The Mayors Challenge allowed mayors to say, ‘Yes, I support your goal, but what do you want me to do?’” said Elisha Harig-Blaine, principal associate of housing for veterans and special needs at the National League of Cities. “That clarifying question there has put the onus back on the community to say, ‘Hmm, what do we need?’”
One big victory in the fight against homelessness has been getting better numbers on the problem, such as the percentage of homeless who are veterans.
Virginia, which is the only state to achieve functional zero so far, had the whole package: local communities working to identify veterans by name, efficient rapid rehousing systems, short-term rent assistance and job training.
They reported on average 131 veterans housed a month, 90 veterans entering the system every month and 20 percent to 30 percent who did not need any intervention, said Matt Leslie, director of housing development at the Virginia Department of Veteran Services.
“But we took a different approach,” Mr. Leslie said. “Around the country, it was really community-driven. In the state of Virginia, it was state-driven in support of communities. It was an extra layer, an extra thing we could do, to have the government support bringing potential for additional resources.”