Prioritizing Homeless Vets: Are We Giving Up on Ending Homelessness for All?

By | Jul 21, 2014


Fourteen years ago, when the goal to actually end homelessness was proposed by a national homeless group, the idea of zero homelessness seemed lofty. Back in 2000, there were 700,000 people who were homeless in America.

That lofty goal, however, prompted a powerful movement to redesign how this country approached housing its homeless neighbors.

Two years later, in 2002, the federal government decided they would challenge every city and jurisdiction in the country to create a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

Note the insertion of “chronic” into their goal. Chronic homelessness is a smaller subset of the general homeless population, which includes people who have been homeless for a long time—or who have been homeless repeatedly—and are living with a disability.

Did federal leaders, even back then, realize that housing the entire homeless population might be too lofty?

Stakeholders within communities that traditionally did not participate in addressing homelessness joined this exciting new effort. Business, faith, political, and community leaders joined hands to commit to ending chronic homelessness in their jurisdictions within a decade.

As the ten-year mark approached, however, it became clear that a true end to chronic homelessness would not be achieved. Nevertheless, the numbers were going down. This was the first downward trend since homelessness became a national issue in the 1980s.

But the number was not zero.

In 2010, the federal government had to reboot their national homelessness strategy. An ambitious, more focused effort was proposed: end veteran and chronic homelessness within five years (2015), and end family homelessness within ten years (2020).

We are now 18 months away from the end of 2015, and a “new” federal push is being promoted around the country.

The First Lady of the United States is challenging mayors across the country to join this effort to house our nation’s veterans. Critics may see this as a diversion from the President’s handling of the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal… but who can argue with efforts to house such deserving citizens?

Some communities are focusing their efforts on an even smaller population: chronically homeless veterans. Efforts in Salt Lake City, Utah and Phoenix, Arizona to end chronic veteran homelessness have been successful.

If you look at the big picture, however, there is a trend within the changing approaches to addressing American homelessness in the past 14 years.

The goal line has shifted: from ending homelessness, to ending chronic homelessness, to ending veteran homelessness.

Experts think ending veteran homelessness is doable. In 2013, PATH permanently housed 1,000 chronically homeless veterans in Southern and Central California. We moved 20 veterans into apartments each week.

So, yes, such an effort is feasible.

But what about all the non-veterans who are homeless? What about those homeless veterans who do not qualify for VA benefits?

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that the total homeless population in America was 610,042. They said it was a four percent drop from the year before.

But, if you compare this number with the 700,000 in 2000, the number of homeless people in America was reduced by 90,000 in a span of 13 years. At this rate, we could end homelessness in 88 years.

I wonder if such dismal projections, coupled with the fact that this country is narrowing its goals to smaller segments of the homeless population, means that we have given up on ending homelessness for all Americans?

Let’s hope not.