Retooling the Crisis Response: Success with Veterans Shows How We Can End Homelessness

by Janice Elliott October 6, 2014

Part three in our series on Solutions

Recently, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that homelessness among veterans in the U.S. has decreased 33% since 2010. This includes a nearly 40% drop in the number of unsheltered veterans sleeping on the street. This dramatic drop is the result of a focused, deliberate effort to end homelessness among veterans by 2016. It is also the result of a large infusion of federal dollars into rental assistance and support services targeted to veterans, as well as a widespread adoption by providers and the VA of evidence-based practices such as Housing First and rapid re-housing.

As First Lady Michelle Obama said at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in July:

Ending homelessness for our veterans can be a crucial first step—a proof point—to show that we can end homelessness for everyone in this country, too… If we achieve our goal, if we end homelessness for our veterans, then we’ll show everyone in this country that we can also do it for all those families shuttling from motel to motel, for all those LGBT teens, and for every single person experiencing homelessness throughout our country

The VA has essentially changed the way it looks at the issue, moving from a focus on shelter to a focus on finding and retaining permanent housing. This is tough work, involving changes in how public agencies and nonprofits behave, challenges to long-held beliefs (particularly about who is or is not ready for housing), and the use of data to identify what works and for whom.

This “retooling” of the way we respond to housing crises is a sea-change effort being undertaken by communities nationwide, and not just for veterans. Cities and regions are working to better link programs and coordinate their care to ensure that:

      • People experiencing a housing crisis have a clear way to access help;
      • Those who can stay housed are diverted from entering shelter;
      • Emergency shelter is available to those who need it;
      • People get assistance in exiting homelessness quickly (such as help in finding and securing an apartment, financial assistance for move-in costs or rental assistance, and case management supports – for shorter or longer durations – depending on individual needs); and
      • Supportive housing is available and targeted to people with the highest needs.

So what’s driving these changes?

Leadership at the Federal level, better data on what works, and support to the field by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and others are all important factors. But fundamentally, I sense the changes are driven by a growing recognition that we can do better. The veterans experience shows us that we can prioritize investments in housing-centered solutions in our federal, state and county budgets. At the ground level we can make it easier for people to get help, better match the help that is offered to the needs of the person, and get people back into stable housing as quickly as possible. If we, as a field, commit to do these things, ending homelessness is truly within our reach.

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