VA Campaign to End Veteran Homelessness in 2015: Is It Possible?

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VA Campaign to End Veteran Homelessness in 2015: Is It Possible?

The optimist would say anything is possible.  The skeptic might say it depends.  The realist would likely say it’s not possible.  The key word is “end” and possibly ending veteran homelessness would depend on the Department of Veterans Affair’s (VA’s) definition of “end.”  Does VA literally mean that there will be no veterans experiencing homelessness come 2016?  Not exactly.

VA’s “About the Initiative” web page states:  “We’ll know we have achieved a systemic end to Veteran homelessness when there are no Veterans sleeping on the streets and there are no more than 12,500 Veterans in shelters, transitional housing or other temporary housing arrangements awaiting permanent housing.”  This is otherwise known as “functional zero.”  Communities can claim a “functional end” to veteran homelessness with “a well coordinated and efficient community system that assures homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring and no Veteran is forced to live on the street.  This means that every Veteran has access to the supports they need and want to avoid staying on the street and move quickly to permanent housing.”

Impassioned communities, organizations, and individuals across this nation are VA, Department of Labor, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) campaign partners, achieving a host of successful projects.  Many partnered to assist veterans experiencing homelessness long before the initiative kicked off, but some would be the first to note that the 6-year campaign is loftily ambitious.  It is riddled with some hefty challenges and disconcerting revelations that will linger into 2016 and well beyond.

Three converging issues hobble homeless women veterans’ access to housing and services:  invisibility, funding, and policies.  Until HUD’s January 2013 Point-in-Time survey, women veterans were coincidentally identified which was assuredly detrimental to VA homeless program funding.  They were homeless veteran “ghosts,” “couch-homeless, couch-surfing, precariously-housed” women staying with family and friends or on the streets, but not an intentionally surveyed homeless veteran demographic.  Two years into the VA’s “Campaign to End Veteran Homelessness,” the December 2011 Government Accounting Office report, Homeless Women Veterans:  Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing reported:

HUD collects data on homeless women and on homeless veterans, but does not collect detailed information on homeless women veterans. Neither VA nor HUD collect data on the total number of homeless women veterans in the general population. Further, they lack data on the characteristics and needs of these women on a national, state, and local level. Absent more complete data, VA does not have the information needed to plan services effectively, allocate grants to providers, and track progress toward its overall goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.  According to knowledgeable VA and HUD officials we spoke with, collecting data specific to homeless women veterans would incur minimal burden and cost.

Labeling and well-intentioned policies may be unintentionally stereotyping homeless women veterans as “special and uniquely” more difficult to serve.  Consequentially, the cost of care and services may be perceived as or actually more expensive and prohibitive to current and potential service providers. The VA Grant and Per Diem Program handbook “Services for Women” section refers to women veterans’ needs as “unique.”  Serious mental illness, sexual trauma, eating disorders, and interpersonal violence are conditions and experiences common to all veterans.  Some conditions and circumstances may be more prevalent for female (single parenthood and higher unemployment) or male (combat-related PTSD and violent acting out) veterans and there may be effective gender-sensitive treatments, but they’re not unique.  Most homeless veterans find themselves in a complex “web of vulnerability,” sorting out multiple challenges and seeking or being referred to “best fit” care and services.  While safety, security, and privacy are irrefutably important, specifying sex offender criteria and screening for mixed-gender facilities only is controversial.  All of these environment of care concerns are universally relevant for all homeless persons in single- and mixed-gender emergency shelter (usually a day and/or night stay) and transitional housing (up to 24-months unless waivered). 

In 2011, more than 60% of VA transitional housing did not accept children or had family size and age restrictions.  In “Women Veterans:  The Long Journey Home,” the Disabled American Veterans organization urged the VA and HUD “to invest in additional safe transitional and supportive beds designated for women veterans and to work with community partners to provide housing programs to accommodate women veterans with families.” 

Now recognized as the fastest growing cohort (8-10%) of homeless veterans, non-urban communities still face the challenge of smaller local homeless women populations.  Smaller transitional homes and multiple-suite complexes are viable housing solutions for women veterans and veterans with families.  A few homes sheltering women veterans, oftentimes someone’s “passion project” and not necessarily federally funded, follow: 

California: Volunteers of America Blue Butterfly Village and Operation Homefront Village

Connecticut: Female Soldiers:  Forgotton Heroes

D.C. Metro Area: Final Salute, Inc.

Maine:  Volunteers of America Huot House

Maryland:  Operation Homefront Village

Massachusetts:  Sheridan House for Women

Michigan:  VFW National Home for Children

North Carolina: Steps N Stages, Inc./Jubilee House and  Women Veterans Support Services, Inc.

Pennsylvania:  Veterans Leadership Program/ Project Journey

Texas: Operation Homefront Village and Rutherford House of Peace and the H.O.P.E. Institute

Victory, ending veteran homelessness this year, may likely be proclaimed.  Consider:

  • VA and HUD are just three years into explicitly surveying for homeless women veterans.  Are women veterans experiencing homelessness considered “functional zero,” all in emergency shelters or temporary housing and awaiting permanent housing, or is it just too soon to know? How do the “functional zero” numbers and needs shake out?
  • GAO noted in their 2011 report that federal data was not available to effectively plan and fund services for the unaccounted homeless women veteran population.  How goes it now?
  • VA policies indicate that women veterans’ needs are unique and that the traditionally single male-centric emergency shelters and transitional housing alternatives with on-site wrap-around service programs may not be appropriate housing for them and children.  Are the “unique” needs and requirements actually gender-specific or are they stereotyping labels?  Aren’t adequate nationwide safe, secure, and sex offender-screened shelters and transitional housing for veterans with and without families a universal concern?
  • Labeling homeless women veterans as “unique, special needs” veterans may be adversely impacting the availability of housing and services.  They’re veterans experiencing homelessness, sharing identical challenges and circumstances as male veterans—unemployment, lack of a support network, substance abuse, sexual trauma, and other conditions.   The prevalence of a condition or circumstance may vary and drive how much of a particular type of safe and secure housing or service is needed for the homeless veteran population as a whole.  They’re not “unique” or more difficult to serve.  They’re fewer in number.
  • The lack of HUD and VA data and federal funding paradigms, as well as well-intentioned safety and security policies, directly impact a community’s willingness and ability to adequately house and service their homeless women veteran population.  More creative, flexible funding and alternative safe and secure emergency shelter and transitional housing models are needed.

The single most important game-changing discovery during this campaign for homeless women veterans was the realization that HUD and VA were not explicitly accounting for them in the HUD annual Point-in-Time surveys.  Progress is evident, but needs-targeted funds must reach communities to close data-supported service gaps and achieve the “functional end” of women veterans experiencing homelessness.

Contacts and Resources:

VA/HUDVet National Hotline Call Center for Homeless Veterans:  1.877.424.3838

VA & HUD Housing Assistance

State Homeless Resources Map

Volunteers of America

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

National Alliance to End Homelessness

 

August 10, 2015