This FAQ is from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Their goal is to end homelessness among veterans by shaping public policy, promoting collaboration, and building the capacity of service providers.
Who are homeless veterans?
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly five percent being female. The majority of them are single; come from urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans.
America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.
Roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively.
About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at-risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
How many homeless veterans are there?
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by – the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty – VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.
Why are veterans homeless?
In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.
A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.
Although “most homeless people are single, unaffiliated men… most housing money in existing federal homelessness programs, in contrast, is devoted to helping homeless families or homeless women with dependant children,” as is stated in the study “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” (Understanding Homelessness: New Policy and Research Perspectives, Fannie Mae Foundation, 1997).
Doesn’t VA take care of homeless veterans?
To a certain extent, yes. VA’s specialized homeless programs served more than 92,000 veterans in 2009, which is highly commendable. This still leaves well over 100,000 more veterans, however, who must seek assistance from local government agencies and community- and faith-based service organizations.
Since 1987, VA’s programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with such community service providers to help expand services to more veterans in crisis. These partnerships are credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by more than half over the past six years. More information about VA homeless programs and initiatives can be found here.
What services do veterans need?
Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing, nutritional meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, personal development and empowerment. Additionally, veterans need job assessment, training and placement assistance.
NCHV strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping them obtain and sustain employment.
What seems to work best?
The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.
Government money, while important, is currently limited, and available services are often at capacity. It is critical, therefore, that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities most Americans take for granted: housing, employment and health care.
VA has approximately 4,000 agreements with community partners nationwide. These types of partnerships have demonstrated that groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with federal, state and local government agencies; other homeless providers; and veteran service organizations. Veterans who participate in these collaborative programs are afforded more services and have higher chances of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.
What can I do?
- Determine the need in your community. Visit with homeless veteran providers. Contact your mayor’s office for a list of providers, or search the NCHV database.
- Involve others. If you are not already part of an organization, align yourself with a few other people who are interested in attacking this issue.
- Participate in local homeless coalitions. Chances are, there is one in your community. If not, this could be the time to bring people together around this critical need.
- Make a donation to your local homeless veteran provider.
- Contact your elected officials. Discuss what is being done in your community for homeless veterans.
Homeless Veterans Facts
DEFINITIONS, DEMOGRAPHICS AND ESTIMATED NUMBERS
What is the definition of homeless?
PL100-77, signed into law on July 22, 1987, and known as the "McKinney Act," provided a definition of homelessness that is commonly used because it controls the federal funding streams.
Excerpt from PL100-77: Sec. 11302:
"General definition of homeless individual
(a) In general
For purposes of this chapter, the term 'homeless' or 'homeless individual or homeless person' includes––
1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is––
A. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide
temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and
transitional housing for the mentally ill);
B. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be
C. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping
accommodation for human beings."
Who is a veteran?
In general, most organizations use the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) eligibility criteria to determine which veterans can access services. Eligibility for VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions. Benefits vary according to factors connected with the type and length of military service. To see details of eligibility criteria for VA compensation and benefits, view the current benefits manual here.
Demographics of homeless veterans
"The Forgotten Americans-Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve" – released Dec. 8, 1999, by the U.S. Interagency Council on the Homeless (USICH) – is the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), which was completed in 1996 and updated three years later. You can download the NSHAPC reports at http://www.huduser.org/.
Veteran-specific highlights from the USICH report include:
23% of the homeless population are veterans
33% of the male homeless population are veterans
47% served Vietnam-era
17% served post-Vietnam
15% served pre-Vietnam
67% served three or more years
33% were stationed in war zone
25% have used VA homeless services
85% completed high school/GED, compared to 56% of non-veterans
89% received an honorable discharge
79% reside in central cities
16% reside in suburban areas
5% reside in rural areas
76% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems
46% are white males, compared to 34% of non-veterans
46% are age 45 or older, compared to 20% non-veterans
Service needs cited include:
45% need help finding a job
37% need help finding housing
How many homeless veterans are there?
Accurate numbers community-by-community are not available. Some communities do annual counts; others do an estimate based on a variety of factors. Contact the closest VA medical center's homeless coordinator, the office of your mayor, or another presiding official to get local information.
A regional breakdown of numbers of homeless veterans, using data from VA's 2008 CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups) report, can be found here.