The quest to end homelessness for military veterans in Houston ramped up during a conference in Florida in 2011. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had organized a training symposium attended by Houston and Harris County housing officials, top staff at the Houston-based regional office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and leaders of Houston nonprofit organizations focused on assisting veterans in need.
Earlier that year, Houston’s overall homeless population had reached 8,538 people—a new peak and a number large enough that HUD notified local housing officials to express concern. The number of Houstonians living on the streets, in tents and shanties in the bayous, and in shelters had been growing since the economic crash of 2007–2009. Realizing that any redoubled effort to address the crisis would benefit from community support, the conference attendees gathered around a meeting table and decided the best way forward would be to publicly announce a short-term, achievable goal in hopes of leveraging an early success to build momentum for a scaled-up approach.
When they got back to Houston, the group announced a determination to find permanent housing for 100 homeless veterans in 100 days. Working together on a tight deadline, they met their goal and, in the process, gained insight into ways of accelerating what had always been a frustratingly slow intervention—at the time, it took an average of 220 days to house a veteran.
On the strength of this success, in 2012, the partnership launched Housing Houston’s Heroes, an ambitious program aiming to house every unsheltered veteran in America’s fourth largest city.
Three years later, this closely watched initiative, backed by HUD, the general public, and the business community, had housed 3,652 former servicemembers.
“Houston Effectively Ends Veteran Homelessness,” stated a press release issued by the office of then-mayor Annise Parker in June 2015, on a day when a trio of U.S. cabinet secretaries—of labor, housing, and veterans affairs—were in town to mark the achievement.
Lessons From Houston
How did Houston do it?
Coordination and procedural streamlining were critical. More than 100 local organizations partnered with the Mayor’s office, a dedicated police unit, expanded street outreach teams, and the Houston Housing Authority, which stepped up in the area of affordable housing and hosted events where landlords could meet prospective veteran-tenants.
Weekly meetings attended by scores of professionals representing every component of the program’s network made for a rapid response and dissolved data silos.
The group determined a local veteran’s journey toward housing involved as many as 150 different steps, with paperwork duplication, I.D. challenges, and hard-to-access information creating an obstacle-strewn path. They reduced the steps by nearly two-thirds, says Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk, director of programs for the Coalition for the Homeless at the time and now CEO of Houston’s Temenos, a community development organization.
Speaking to Pacific Standard in 2019, Thibaudeau-Graczyk recalls: “We started to learn the power of navigation…. [We’d take homeless veterans] one-by-one through each step of the process. We’d drive them…visit properties with them.”
Breaking Down the Barriers to Care
When a veteran struggles, there is no shortage of organizations that can offer assistance. And these can be lifelines when VA services are inadequate or hard to access. However, the complexity of this “fractured system of care” is itself a problem, says Hannah Sinoway, an executive director at New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). That’s why the IAVA established the Quick Reaction Force network, or QRF, a national resource center that custom-matches veterans to optimal support.
Stumbling blocks for a veteran hoping to leave the streets are many, says Sunnie Hirschfield, a coordinator for homeless outreach and veterans services in southeastern Wisconsin. Poor credit, an inability to meet income requirements, a past eviction, a prior for disorderly conduct or habitation of a park, no phone or a number that traces to a shelter—all common pitfalls. They might have mental-health or substance abuse issues. Without help, even things like clothes for an interview, filling out an application, and transportation are challenges.
Assisting homeless veterans for almost a decade now, Hirschfield says she’s encountered fewer of them in her city in recent years, a change she credits to the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which combines rental assistance vouchers with VA case management.
Created in the 1990s, HUD-VASH received renewed emphasis from the Obama Administration, which in 2010 set a goal of ending veteran homelessness. Six years later, HUD announced a 47-percent decline in the unhoused veteran population, with cities like New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Philadelphia joining Houston as success stories.
Now, however, with a pandemic battering the economy, state and city coffers shrinking, and eviction moratoriums due to expire, the numbers look poised to rise again.
“Sadly, it’s going to get worse,” says Hirschfield.
New Ideas for a New World
There are differences between today and 2010, though, a year when the VA counted nearly 80,000 veterans without permanent homes. During the past decade, cities have discovered housing approaches that work. Moreover, there’s no surge in veterans returning from the post-9/11 wars. Ten years ago, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported 12,700 homeless servicemembers who’d fought in these conflicts, with many of them suffering from PTSD, post-concussive syndrome, and traumatic brain injury.
Pairing permanent housing with support services and healthcare—the heart of HUD-VASH—has been effective. Speed is important—the rapid rehousing approach aims to minimize the time a person spends in the shelter system or intervene pre-eviction. A Toledo-based nonprofit now operating in 20 states, Veterans Matter, works with the VA to send money for a security deposit or rent payment the same day, adding nimbleness to the voucher-use process.
One of the most innovative approaches is the Veterans Community Project (VCP), which builds tiny house villages. Launched in 2016 by veterans of post-9/11 wars, the Project opened a village of 49 structures in Kansas City in 2019 on land bought from the city for $500, and recently acquired acreage for a planned 50-house village in St. Louis. On-site outreach centers provide counseling, employment aid, legal assistance, healthcare, and more. The camaraderie-rich environment offered by these villages—“veterans helping veterans”—is precisely what the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports to be the most effective approach.
Heading the organization’s expansion plans, VCP President Jason Kander, a former Missouri state congressman, state secretary, and 2016 U.S. Senate candidate, has been struck by the level of interest in the project from all over the country. A veteran himself—he served a tour in Afghanistan and has been treated for PTSD—Kander is in talks with multiple locations, and says, “We’re looking at probably five more major cities we’ll be able to announce next year.”
Los Angeles Takes Steps to Step Up
While there’s been notable progress made on veteran homelessness in many urban communities, the metro area with the largest veteran population—Los Angeles County, home to 330,000 former servicemembers—offers a less encouraging example. A point-in-time census early this year counted more than 3,900 unhoused veterans.
But one innovative program and one long-term development stand out. First piloted in 2016, Safe Parking LA, a joint effort launched by a nonprofit and the city, offers parking lots with overnight security, restrooms, and outreach for hundreds of the nearly 16,000 Angelenos who live in their vehicles. One of those lots is on the 388-acre West L.A. Veterans Affairs campus. This same property is currently home to 100 unhoused veterans living in VA-provided tents with full access to services—a temporary offering spurred by the pandemic.
Deeded to the federal government by post–Civil War landowners envisioning a haven for disabled veterans, this parcel of rolling land, on the Westwood/Brentwood border, was once an entire veterans village, with a post office, trolley station, and orange groves. In the early 1950s, as many as 4,000 veterans called it home.
But for years, no housing-insecure veterans lived on the sprawling property—a source of controversy, given the city’s veteran homelessness problem. That’s changing, however. By 2022, thanks to new construction and the retrofitting of older buildings, the campus is slated to offer roughly 250 permanent supportive housing units, with a goal of providing 1,600 units by decade’s end. That will return the location to its roots, helping house those who have served.
*Note: Atlanta’s 2020 count identified 322 unhoused veterans. The count in Houston this year was 267. The problem of veteran homelessness is ongoing and “everywhere,” says Jason Kander.
Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.