The country has made progress toward its goal of ending veterans' homelessness by 2015, but budget cuts might stand to threaten the momentum, according to federal officials. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies announced the target in 2010 as part of the Opening Doors campaign, seeking to end chronic and veterans' homelessness by 2015 and to end homelessness among children, families and youth by 2020.
Since 2010, homelessness among veterans has fallen by 24 percent across the country, according to a point-in-time report that the Department of Housing and Urban Development released late last month. The assessment measures homelessness on a single night in January each year.
In HUD's most recent assessment, 57,849 veterans were homeless nationwide. According to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the recent reductions are notable because they broke previous patterns of increased homelessness during difficult economic times.
"It's a remarkable reversal of what is traditionally the trend line," he said during a roundtable discussion with reporters last month.
In late November, though, HUD said the budget for its existing homelessness-assistance programs would be cut by 5 percent, partly because of flat funding from Congress and the impact of sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board federal spending reductions that began last spring. Though these cuts don't affect the VA's operating budget, officials are concerned about the impact they'll have on veterans.
Vince Kane, the director of the VA National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, said his office partnered closely with HUD and the community programs it supported across the country.
The reduction in funds "will have a dramatic impact on us," Kane said. "If programs get cut by HUD and others, that impacts our ability to care for the entire family."
The VA contributes grants to nonprofit programs designed to help low-income veteran families, through programs such as Supportive Services for Veteran Families. But these organizations receive significant support from HUD grants, as well.
For example, in 2012 almost 16,000 beds were targeted for vets in programs that were at least partially funded by HUD grants, according to HUD. The VA and HUD also run a joint program that places veterans and their families in permanent housing and offers them clinical and supportive services. Kane said these kinds of partnerships among community organizations, the VA, HUD and other stakeholders made a difference.
"If that delicate balance is upset by funding changes, it impacts how quickly and how many veterans we can serve," he said.
Kane said the 24 percent drop in homelessness was largely a result of the VA's recently adopted "housing first" philosophy, which prioritizes placing veterans in housing and then wrapping support – such as employment and health care – around them.
A specialized campaign will launch in January to target the 25 communities across the country with the most acute homelessness among veterans. The VA will work with HUD, local and state governments, and community stakeholders for a two-year push to connect veterans to housing and other services.
Among other things, the efforts are designed to make veterans more aware of the services available to them. Outreach is handled by local VA offices and other nonprofits, both of which send staff to the streets to engage with veterans. Once veterans are contacted, case managers attempt to link them with housing, health care and jobs.
"Now is not the time to retreat from doing what we know is working," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a statement. "We shouldn't be cutting our budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society."
Kane said the VA had known from start that ending homelessness wasn't something it could do on its own.
"We still have too many veterans on the streets, and the push is to intensify the services even more," he said. Homeless veterans who need support may call the VA at 1-877-424-3838.