Combatting Veteran Homelessness in the “Home of the Brave”

This Fourth of July, at Independence Day events across the country, Americans will recognize the 21.4 million US veterans. They will host parades and deliver speeches extolling the veterans for their service and sacrifice. But what many Americans fail to appreciate are the major challenges that servicemen/women face upon returning to civilian life.

This week, country superstar Tim McGraw drew attention to one of the most profound and intractable challenges: homelessness. In collaboration with Operation Homefront and Chase Bank, he awarded 6 mortgage-free homes to US veterans. McGraw plans to donate 30 more homes during his 2015 tour – one for each remaining tour stop. According to McGraw, “For [veterans] to be able to come back and…have a home that is secure and safe is something that really hit home for me,” McGraw said.

Regrettably, McGraw’s efforts will make only a small dent in the homelessness problem. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. This equates to approximately 12% of the homeless adult population. Worse still, the HUD believes that around 1.4 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

So how does one go from revered soldier to living on the streets? The causes are often linked to military service. To begin, many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or physical disabilities following combat. Such conditions, in turn, can lead to costly substance abuse problems. Some veterans also see their relationship deteriorate during deployments. Thus, they return home to a lack of family and social support networks. Moreover, military positions and training “are not always transferable to the civilian workforce”, resulting in un- or under-employment. The resulting income is often insufficient to cover rent or mortgage payments.

In light of these causes, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has adopted a three-prong approach to combat homelessness: 1) conducting outreach to locate veterans in need, 2) connecting homeless and at-risk veterans with housing solutions, healthcare, and employment, and 3) collaborating with other agencies and non-profits to expand affordable housing options. The “housing solutions” include Housing Choice vouchers (subsidies paid directly to landlords), VA-supported transitional housing, and discounted mortgages on foreclosed properties. These efforts have helped reduce the number of homeless veterans by an impressive 70% since 2005.

Still, more is needed to house our heroes. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recommends rapid re-housing and Housing First strategies, complemented by supportive services for those with mental or physical disabilities. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans advocates for transitional housing where veterans can live together in a structured, substance-free environment. Whatever the strategy, it will require effecive collaboration between the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Housing homeless veterans is the least Americans can do to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans— “the men and women who have put everything on the line for their country”. But it is more than just a moral imperative. In words attributed to George Washington, “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve …shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” Thus, supporting veterans is truly an “investment in the strength…and security of our society”.

To learn more, or lend your support, please contact Operation Homefront, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, or our partners, Give an Hour, Honoring the Path, and Still Serving Veterans.