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What you need to know about America’s homeless veteran problem

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Homeless veterans - Thomas Moore

Homeless Korean War veteran Thomas Moore, 79, sits on a sidewalk in Boston in 2013. He says he has no interest in a government-subsidized apartment.

Credit: Steven Senne/Associated Press

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night, 610,042 people across the U.S. experience homelessness.  About 9 percent of homeless adults, or 57,849, are veterans.  

These homeless veterans often suffer from mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other conditions that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. Here’s a look at some of the facts you should know about this problem.

Some cities are addressing the homeless veteran problem head on.

In 2009, with support from the Obama administration, Eric Shinseki, then the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, announced an initiative to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015.

In December 2013, Phoenix became the first city to fully realize this effort. In a Q&A with USA Today, Mayor Greg Stanton recounted that just a few years earlier, Phoenix had roughly 220 chronically homeless veterans who had been on the streets for an average of eight years. Salt Lake City joined the ranks soon thereafter.

Most recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to end veteran homelessness in 2015.

Los Angeles has the largest homeless veteran population.

While homelessness is a chronic issue across America, the epicenter is Los Angeles County, with more than 6,300 homeless veterans. The city has a large veteran population – in 2012, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles projected that nearly 25,000 veterans would return to Los Angeles over the next five years.

We profiled some female veterans living in Los Angeles and the challenges they face in our 2012 documentary “Her War,” which takes us to the “forgotten war zone” of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Her War

"Her War" takes us to a forgotten war zone - LA's Skid Row, where an increasing number of female veterans live on the streets. In recent years, the number of homeless women vets has doubled, making female vets the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the U.S.

According to our findings in the film: “During their tours of duty, at least 1 in 5 female veterans experienced sexual assault or repeated harassment, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These women are four times more likely to suffer from PTSD and an increasing number end up addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

How are cities going to get veterans off the streets?

Many are following the Housing First model, which is part of a larger 2010 initiative by the VA National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under this partnership, HUD provides vouchers for housing assistance, while the VA focuses on providing supportive services.

Stanton, Phoenix’s mayor, explained to USA Today that under old rules, veterans would lose their housing privileges if they continued to abuse substances like drugs or alcohol. Under Housing First, Stanton describes an understanding that “if someone has been on the streets for a long time, and been abusing drugs or alcohol for a long time, it may take awhile for them to be able to break that issue in their lives.”

Now, Phoenix boasts a 94 percent retention rate under the Housing First model, way above the national average, according to Stanton.

Is Housing First working?

In 2013, the pilot program offered 700 vouchers nationally across 14 participating VA medical centers. According to a program brief, 84 percent of the 700 veterans in the program – 585 – “are still living in permanent housing, with varying lengths of stay.” Take a look at the rest of the breakdown:

“Among the 115 Veterans who have left the program, 37% (43) moved to a more independent living arrangement; 20% (23) discharged to an institutional setting, including hospital, nursing home, or prison; 30% (34) relapsed into homeless or were lost to care; and 13% (15) died, the majority from natural causes.”

So far, results show that the Housing First approach also leads to fewer medical costs for treating these veterans. By comparing VA medical records from before and after the veterans’ admission to the program, the pilot showed a 32 percent reduction in total direct VA health care costs, and more intensive inpatient care costs fell by 54 percent.

But as Al Jazeera America reports, it’s a long road ahead to make a house a home. According to Matt Rayburn, a regional manager for People Assisting The Homeless in Los Angeles:

“We found out the hard way that it takes an average year and a half to get them in a house and three months to get evicted. And once evicted, it takes five years to get them back. We’re not even scratching the surface.”

So now what?

While Salt Lake City and Phoenix have declared their homeless veteran problem over in early 2014, it remains to be seen whether larger cities, such as Los Angeles, can do the same. And as the VA continues to deal with controversy over its wait times for benefits, among other issues, some say this is just a way to distract from the VA’s larger accountability problems.

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