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Supporting Our Veterans Isn’t Just the Right Thing… It’s the Smart Thing

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of PATimes, A Look at Military Service.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elisha Harig-Blaine
October 30, 2017

Two or three times each year, our attention turns toward veterans and the sacrifices they have made for the United States. Yet sustaining that focus beyond Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Veterans Day has been essential to creating meaningful and lasting change, especially when it comes to ensuring that veterans have a safe place to call home.

Notwithstanding the fact that homelessness continues to be a seemingly intractable public policy challenge, significant inroads have been made with regard to veterans. Overall homelessness for this population has plummeted by 47 percent since 2010, with the number of veterans on our streets falling by 57 percent. This progress has not been happenstance. It is the result of planning, dedicated resources, collaboration and local leadership.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released Opening Doors, a first-time strategic approach to ending homelessness by prioritizing specified subpopulations, starting with veterans. Federal officials recognized that focusing on them initially presented numerous advantages. First, veterans have unique access to such services and benefits as health care, education and employment.

Beyond access to resources, policymakers understood that reducing homelessness required the support of public and private partners at every level. Recognizing the “sea of goodwill” for veterans, federal officials began to target housing resources to homeless ones with the HUD-VA Supportive Housing voucher program, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). HUD provides a Housing Choice Voucher—Section 8 voucher—for veterans and VA provides case management services.

In addition to longer-term housing subsidies, VA launched a shorter-term program, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, in 2009. One year later, Congress authorized and appropriated historic levels of funding to support local efforts to end veteran homelessness.

The private sector matched this unprecedented level of congressional support. Businesses and philanthropies joined federal partners to accelerate veteran hiring and fill gaps in services. One example: Since 2011, the Home Depot Foundation has focused on veterans and built or improved more than 30,000 homes in nearly 2,000 cities. Its commitment to veteran-related causes will grow to a quarter of a billion dollars by 2020.

Taken together, communities for the first time had the resources needed to significantly reduce—even end—veteran homelessness. The challenge: Develop the systems and sustainable structures required to effectively and efficiently use those resources. To support these community based systems, federal partners funded technical assistance initiatives to provide guidance, working with stakeholders to implement best practices like the by-name lists of homeless veterans and common assessment tools to prioritize veterans for assistance based on need.

A final component has been the active engagement of local elected officials through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, led by federal agencies and supported by the National League of Cities (NLC) and other national organizations. Launched in 2014, the challenge is a network of 611 elected officials—521 mayors, 83 county and city officials and seven governors—who have made the permanent commitment to ensure homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, starting with veterans.

The Mayors Challenge has been a mechanism for local elected officials to demonstrate their support for ending veteran homelessness. It also has provided homeless service providers a platform to engage public officials around specific actions they can take to help accelerate community based efforts. That said, it was not until more than one year after the challenge’s launch that federal officials announced the definition of what it actually means to “end” veteran homelessness. The groundswell of support for the goal itself, enabled by the prioritization of the veteran subpopulation, led the officials to take this historic step. Since 2015, more than 50 communities and three states have announced the functional end of veteran homelessness.

As this number grows, the collaborative systems developed to achieve this shared goal must not only be maintained, but be strengthened and enhanced to end homelessness for other subpopulations. Beyond veterans, the chronically homeless are men, women and children who are highly likely to use these services. By stabilizing this subpopulation, communities can minimize homelessness’ fiscal impact on limited resources.

Beyond Homelessness

A focus on veterans is most visible through the lens of veteran homelessness and specifying them as a subpopulation. Still, communities nationwide are exploring how they can make similar improvements in other areas. With support from The Home Depot Foundation, NLC is partnering with Purple Heart Homes (PHH) to improve how cities can address the home modification needs of senior and disabled veterans.

Federal resources, especially the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, have funded home modification programs in many cities. Yet the level of CDBG resources has plateaued or declined, notwithstanding increasing numbers of residents turning 65 or having some form of a disability. To help communities target resources more effectively, NLC and PHH are working with credit unions, aging agencies, local VA medical centers, United Ways and other stakeholders in eight cities to identify veterans in need of home modifications. These modifications range from installing or repairing grab bars, to lowering counter tops to widening doorways. The key is to connect veterans to appropriate community resources so cities can ensure effective and efficient use of limited resources, while building or expanding collaborative systems to leverage public-private partnerships.

Nearly eight percent of the U.S. adult population are veterans and an increasing number of military personnel serve multiple overseas tours as part of the nation’s longest period of continuous conflict. Supporting veterans and their families is not only a matter of patriotism; it is a matter of national security.

To be sure, VA has a significant role to play in meeting veteran needs, but it cannot be the only one. More and more, communities see the ancillary benefits that come from focusing on veterans. In an ever-present environment of limited resources, we must illustrate—in both words and deeds—that we truly understand the words of President Lincoln and will “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is principal housing associate for veterans and special needs at the National League of Cities, where he connects local leaders to best practices aimed at ensuring all veterans have a safe place to call home. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Harig-Blaine served as director of outreach and state coalitions at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. He can be reached at [email protected]

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