A focus on getting veterans into independent housing as opposed to temporary shelters, along with creative responses during the pandemic, were responsible, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This is a pretty big milestone in our efforts to end veteran homelessness,” said Shawn Liu, director of communications for the VA’s Homeless Programs Office.
The data comes from preliminary results released this month of the 2022 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count, a single-night snapshot of unhoused and housing-insecure veterans.
If you are a veteran who is experiencing homelessness or at risk for homelessness, call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
Unhoused veterans — who make up 13% of homeless adults in the U.S. — are more likely to suffer from mental illness, such as PTSD or substance abuse disorder, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Historically, Indigenous and Black veterans are disproportionately more likely to be homeless than white veterans, though demographics were not included in this most recent preliminary PIT count.
“It’s easy to focus on (individual factors) and say that, ‘Well, that’s all the answer.’ But it’s really important to think about the system level factors: things such as lack of affordable housing (or) lack of economic opportunities in communities,” Liu said.
Many of those who work to end homelessness say the adoption of Housing First — which focuses on providing unconditional, independent, permanent housing — has been the driving factor of the decline.
“There’s something almost — you can’t describe it — what having a home does to people psychologically, it’s profound,” Deborah Padgett, who wrote the book on Housing First, told NewsNation earlier this year.
She said that providing addiction resources, mental healthcare and job placement services are also essential.
Over the past two decades, the approach has grown in popularity throughout the country, as research has shown it reduces taxpayer spending while increasing addiction recovery, job placement, housing stability and mental illness treatment among unhoused people.
“Eighty to 90% of people do get some kind of housing stability when they are given a place to live as opposed to a shelter bed,” Padgett said.
The number of unhoused veterans fell steadily from 2010, when the VA began the “largest Housing First implementation to date.”
A study of seven different VA homelessness programs used by more than 15,000 veterans found those who were given permanent supported housing “were most likely to be in permanent housing” two years later.
Still, the authors also noted more than 40% of veterans in other programs also had permanent housing by the end of the study.
Another study found a lack of affordable housing, coordination with local housing authorities and funding sometimes led to overworked caseworkers and disorganized management within local programs.
Beginning in 2016, the reduction of unhoused veterans stagnated, which officials attributed to “shifting” leadership priorities. That is also the year a newly filed lawsuit claims the VA promised and failed, to provide housing for veterans on part of their West Los Angeles campus. The VA declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
The pandemic brought the need for individual and socially distant housing back to the forefront, resulting in a significant drop in homelessness among veterans.
The drop was largely funded by the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020, Liu said. That legislation gave the VA more flexibility to use funds for “life-saving goods and services” during the pandemic, including food, shelter in motels or hotels, transportation and phones for telehealth.
It is unclear whether many of these services will stay long term, as Congress would have to put forth new legislation and funding. Yet this emergency period has proven that flexibility increases whether veterans access services, Liu said.
Today, nearly 90,000 veterans are housed due to Housing First models.
“Many of those positive changes … were filling important gaps that actually existed before the pandemic,” he said, adding the results of the most recent count “really mark a return to making steady progress towards ending veteran homelessness.”
The 2022 PIT Count is the first full count since the pandemic began. More detailed breakdowns, such as race, age and location, will be released in the full report.