One night in January, volunteers across the country counted 40,056 veterans living on the streets or in transitional housing and shelters — 585 more than in 2016 and the first increase of homeless veterans since 2010.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported this week the results of its annual point-in-time count of the country’s homeless.
The findings were released Wednesday at the same time concerns were growing among advocates that the federal government was stripping resources from one program that has been successfully housing veterans.
The report, which found 553,742 people homeless in the U.S., showed that veterans accounted for 9 percent of them. Of the homeless veterans counted, 38 percent were in places deemed unsuitable for habitation. The number of homeless female veterans increased by 7 percent.
Largely driving the increase this year: 1,860 more homeless veterans in California, where 29 percent of homeless veterans live, HUD reported. Veteran homelessness decreased in 36 states and Washington.
“We were hoping to see the numbers trend down, given the intensive efforts a lot of communities were putting into that work at the very end of the Obama administration,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the nonprofit National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “But it’s not a huge surprise, given some of the affordable housing issues that we’ve seen out on the West Coast.”
There’s a severe affordable housing shortage in Los Angeles County. Excluding that county, overall veteran homelessness would have decreased by 3.2 percent.
The last year-to-year increase was in 2010, followed by six years of gradual decline. Since 2009, there has been a 45 percent decrease in the number of homeless veterans.
Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki established a goal in 2010 of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The deadline came and went, but advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans have credited the initiative with boosting attention and resources that led to 33,300 fewer homeless veterans in the past seven years. VA Secretary David Shulkin hasn’t sent a new deadline for ending veteran homelessness but said this week that the VA “remains committed” to helping veterans find housing. Advocates, though, are concerned the agency is letting up.
The release of the HUD report on Wednesday was quickly followed by reports of the VA reallocating funds from a $460 million program that serves homeless veterans — a decision that was reversed Wednesday night after swift outcry from lawmakers and advocates.
Politico first reported Wednesday that the VA was shifting $460 million from a voucher program for homeless veterans, known as HUD-VASH, to local VA hospitals to use for the homeless.
Leon Winston, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares in Northern California — said the move had led to a decrease in aid for homeless veterans in San Francisco. He sought funds from the local VA for 100 housing vouchers but secured only 50, he said.
“We’re very close in San Francisco to ending chronic veteran homelessness, and we still have a lot of vets to house,” Winston said. “Those vouchers would make a big difference in our ability to do that.”
On Nov. 7, lawmakers on an appropriations subcommittee sent a letter to Shulkin stating they had “serious concern” about the plan to reallocate funds.
Shulkin issued a brief statement Wednesday evening indicating an about-face on the decision.
“There will be absolutely no change in the funding to support our homeless programs,” the statement reads.
He went on to say he would solicit input from stakeholders and develop a plan for how funding for veteran homelessness should be allocated in 2019.
Winston woke up Thursday morning to news about the reversal. While he’s relieved, he and other organizations want to ensure Shulkin can’t change his mind.
“We feel we need to have a congressional fix on this,” Winston said. “When funds are appropriated for a specific purpose that’s a priority for Congress, it must remain dedicated to that purpose.”
The fight sent a negative message to housing authorities and affordable housing developers, who are still uncertain about what it all means, Winston and Monet said. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans issued a statement Thursday seeking clarification on Shulkin’s statement, which Monet said was unclear. The group wants “concrete assurance” that funding for veteran homelessness for fiscal 2018 will remain directed toward that purpose.
“A lot of local partners put a lot of resources into the federal goal of ending veteran homelessness,” Winston said. “How much more are they going to do if the VA is taking their foot off the pedal?”
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