While Homeless Veterans Get Housing, Rest Are Left in the Cold

Veteran homelessness has dropped sharply, thanks to cities’ efforts and new funds from the Obama administration. But most people living on the streets aren’t veterans.
by | February 2016

A week before Christmas, Georgia Alexander found herself staring at her first apartment lease in six years. For the past few months, she had been living out of her car while her 6-year-old son, Jaylin, stayed with relatives. When she was pregnant with Jaylin in 2009, her doctor recommended that she leave her job at Target, where she unloaded trucks and stocked the store. She had been unemployed and frequently homeless ever since.

Now her homelessness was ending, and it was clear why: She’s a military veteran.

For 13 years, Alexander was a workgroup manager in the U.S. Air Force, installing software and making minor repairs to office computers. She lived all over, from Dayton, Ohio, to South Korea. But she grew up in the District of Columbia, and that’s where she returned after leaving the service in 2006.

In December, Alexander attended a “meet-and-lease” event for homeless veterans hosted by the D.C. Housing Authority. More than a dozen vets came hoping to find a place to live. Landlords sat at a long table, ready to offer apartments to those who had federal rental vouchers. Alexander had all her documents in order. As she filled out her paperwork, a D.C. housing official nodded and said, “Home for the holidays!” Afterward, Alexander hugged the housing official, a woman she had just met, and cried. “It’s just a relief of stress for me,” she said. “I finally have a place for me and my son.”

There are many stories like Alexander’s in the District of Columbia. The number of homeless veterans in the nation’s capital has declined by 36 percent since the end of the recession. And the district isn’t alone. Nationally, nearly 48,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2015, representing a 35 percent drop from 2009. The reductions have been so dramatic in some places -- New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas -- that at least a dozen mayors and one governor now say they’ve effectively eliminated homelessness among veterans.

But most people who are homeless are not veterans. And in many of the nation’s large cities, homelessness among the general population appears to be getting worse. Comparing 2009 and 2015, one-night counts revealed major increases in homelessness in Seattle-King County (up 13 percent), Los Angeles (up 24 percent) and New York City (up 53 percent). In the Portland, Ore., area, overall homelessness has gone down in the last few years, but since 2010, the number who live outside the shelter system -- in cars, in abandoned buildings or on the street -- has climbed almost 19 percent. Last fall, the mayors of Portland and Seattle declared states of emergency because of the rise in unsheltered homelessness, as did the governor of Hawaii. The mayor of Los Angeles also declared the situation in his city an emergency, though he eventually abandoned a plan to seek emergency legal powers.

The problems facing Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle should be familiar to political leaders in other large cities. According to counts conducted in 2014 and 2015, overall homelessness in the nation’s 50 largest urban areas increased by 3 percent during that one year. The number of unsheltered individuals in those cities went up 10.5 percent. The number of unsheltered people in homeless families grew by 18.8 percent. It’s the family problem that threatens to undo much of the progress made in recent years.

Homelessness among veterans continues to decline in large cities for one reason: A federal strategy to deal with it has actually worked. In 2009, the Obama administration set a goal of ending veteran homelessness in six years. To do this, Congress expanded rental vouchers for veterans, and federal agencies emphasized a “housing first” model, in which people could move into an apartment while receiving help to address employment, mental health or addiction issues. But the same strategy hasn’t been scaled up to help the 89 percent of the homeless population who are not veterans. In growing cities with a scarcity of affordable apartments, cuts to federal housing assistance have only made the problem worse.

Right now, it’s hard to say whether success in lowering homelessness will be limited to veterans, or whether this will be the first step in a longer campaign to fight homelessness among the rest of the population.

In December 2013, Salt Lake City became one of the first cities to announce an effective end to chronic veteran homelessness. It didn’t mean that no one would ever become homeless again, but federal and local officials said they had housed every veteran who had been homeless continuously for at least a year, or repeatedly for three years. They believed they had the funding and infrastructure to prevent any veteran from falling into a chronic pattern of homelessness in the future. The only exceptions were veterans who refused housing when they were offered help.

It was an achievement that made national news, but “what it turned into for me was huge criticism,” says former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. “We had people saying, ‘Look at the people on the streets, on our benches, at our intersections impeding traffic.’ They said it was a bogus claim.”

The blowback Becker experienced stems from a contrast between reports of “ended homelessness” and the visual evidence of people still sleeping in public places. Salt Lake City officials were careful to couch their milestone as “effectively ending chronic veteran homelessness,” but the qualifiers got lost amid public debate. The number of homeless veterans was going down, but it was hard for citizens to know who was a veteran and who wasn’t. Nor was there any way for them to know how long a person had been without a place to live. They saw people in sleeping bags on park benches, and they concluded the problem wasn’t getting better. The conspicuous presence of homeless people in public places, and especially downtown, became an issue in Becker’s 2015 bid for re-election. Opponents accused him of not doing enough to address it, and polling showed most voters agreed. On Election Day, he was narrowly unseated after two terms.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) confirm that on any given night, a fair amount of homelessness still exists in Salt Lake City and its surrounding county. In the 2015 point-in-time count, roughly 2,200 people in the city were homeless, about 90 of them unsheltered. Even among veterans, some were homeless: 288 overall and 10 who were not in shelters. For a city of 190,000 people, it wasn’t a lot, but it wasn’t zero. Some veterans were still homeless. “As an absolute number,” Becker says, “[zero] is probably aspirational.”

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The downsides of declaring victory too soon have made other cities more cautious. D.C. now keeps a list of all homeless veterans and how they’re interacting with public services. When the 2016 counts are released later this year, D.C. officials expect the data to show that nearly every homeless veteran found housing. By the federal HUD definition, that would constitute a functional end to veteran homelessness. But not all veterans in D.C. will be living in permanent housing, because some have refused services. Those in the final group that remains homeless are wary of help, says Kristy Greenwalt, executive director of the district’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, because of years or even decades of frustration with the housing assistance system. “They come in at night for shelter,” she says, “and the last thing they want to be is assessed again, especially when the system has failed them before.”

Whether D.C. actually ends veteran homelessness, or merely reduces it to a much lower level, it will be able to point out that many veterans who once slept in crowded shelters or on the street are now living in apartments. That’s generally true in large urban areas. Even though veteran homelessness had declined 35 percent over the past four years in the 50 largest cities in the country, general homelessness was going up in many of those same places. Homeless people who didn’t serve in the military need the same level of attention and financial assistance as veterans, especially in growing metropolitan areas. They aren’t receiving it.

To some extent, general homelessness is tied to housing prices. In big cities and their surrounding areas, rental vacancy rates are the lowest they’ve been in more than a decade. The shortage of units has driven up rental costs, and wages haven’t kept pace. In 2014, real rents in the country were 7 percent higher than they had been in 2001, but household incomes were 9 percent lower, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Historically, federal vouchers have helped low-income renters afford apartment units in expensive real estate markets. But in 2011, spending cuts under the federal sequestration agreement resulted in the elimination of vouchers for roughly 100,000 households. (By comparison, rental vouchers for veterans actually received a funding boost.) Because these vouchers are not an entitlement, there is no requirement that spending meet the need. The result is that nearly three-quarters of the low-income households that qualify for assistance are not currently receiving federal rental vouchers.

Although the federal government still provides about 2.2 million rental vouchers to low-income households, the only vouchers that have increased in number under the Obama administration are those funded jointly by HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since 2008, the federal government has awarded about 80,000 vouchers to 101,000 veterans and their families. In recent White House budgets, HUD officials have requested an expansion of “mainstream” vouchers for nonveterans, but Congress hasn’t appropriated the money.

In the early 2000s, many cities and counties across the country released 10-year plans to end homelessness. These focused on the most pressing issue at the time, which was the small slice of the homeless population that lived in shelters or in public places for a year or more. To a large extent, this problem has been dealt with. Last year, about 42,000 unsheltered individuals were chronically homeless, marking a 44 percent decline from 2007. But in large metro areas, there has been a rise in family homelessness, a problem that is more difficult to solve. There are good reasons why the Obama administration sought to end homelessness for veterans first. It wasn’t just because of their record of service. It was also because the numbers were comparatively small, and the federal government knew how to address their problems.

Experience has shown that when homeless individuals are placed in apartments and connected with support services, they tend to stay housed. Particularly for veterans, where enough federal vouchers are available, “it’s a possibility to end homelessness,” says Mary Cunningham, a researcher who studies the issue at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “I feel more skeptical on the families side.” Scale, of course, is part of the reason for her skepticism. Veterans, who tend to be single adult men, represent about a tenth of all homeless people. By comparison, more than a third of the homeless population are families with children, most of them households led by single mothers.

Family homelessness has closer links to larger economic forces. In general, parents don’t lose their housing because of psychotic episodes or substance abuse. The treatment homeless parents need is a job that pays enough to cover rent in an expensive city. In theory, the solutions for family homelessness are straightforward. “You either help people increase their income or you can increase affordable housing,” Cunningham says. Either scenario would require significant investment, more than a city or county could spend on its own.

Barb Ritter, director of Michigan’s Homeless Information Management System, describes the recent experience with veterans as a glass half full and half empty. It’s half full because government officials know major reductions in family homelessness are possible and they know what’s required to reduce it. Parents need help paying their energy bills and rent. They need help finding a job, or a better paying job. And they need access to those forms of assistance either before they become homeless or right after.

But it’s just as easy to see family homelessness as a half-empty glass. Veterans, after all, receive bipartisan support in Congress and represent such a small part of the overall homeless population. “It’s possible to [solve the family problem,]” Ritter says, “but the amount of resources would have to be exponentially higher because there are more people. Society would have to decide that they aren’t going to leave families homeless, period.”