Ending Veteran Homelessness?

The 2017 Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless count numbers for Philadelphia came out a few weeks ago. The PIT count is an annual one-night enumeration of homeless people typically done on a January night in almost all US cities. For homelessness researchers and policymakers, it offers the best snapshot we have on the size of the homeless population.

The PIT count also provides numbers on homelessness among veterans. Homeless veterans are counted as a distinct subpopulation in the local PIT counts. Nationwide, the PIT count has provided the basis for showing how veteran homelessness has declined 47% since 2009. In Philadelphia, as you can see from the table I put together, the PIT count shows veteran homelessness to have been in decline since 2013.

PIT table.JPG

These national and local declines are largely attributed to the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) making ending veteran homelessness a policy priority during the Obama Administration, and by Congress signing onto what became one of the few bipartisan issues during this time. While homelessness among veterans has not completely disappeared, in early 2015 New Orleans became the first city to declare that they had effectively ended veteran homelessness. Since then 3 states and 51 other communities have followed suit. Philadelphia is among these cities, having declared an end to veteran homelessness on December 15, 2017.

So what does ending veteran homelessness look like on the PIT count? In the immediate wake of Philadelphia’s ending veteran homelessness in late 2015, the PIT count still turned up just under 300 homeless veterans (see table). This number dropped to 244, impressive 17% decline, in the 2017 count. However, this is hardly zero. So how do we reconcile these counts with ending veteran homelessness?

The VA’s answer to this is called functional zero, meaning that “homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring and no Veteran is forced to live on the street”. Functional zero recognizes that there will be a residual number of veterans who are experiencing homelessness but who are on their way to receiving more permanent housing, as well as a few recalcitrants who steadfastly refuse any assistance despite efforts to reach out to them. In Philadelphia, officials estimate that this means 20 or 30 veterans are homeless on a given night.

It is at this point that cynics shake their heads and the Orwell references come out, as ending homelessness here paradoxically accommodates a certain level of homelessness. The crux of the problem is a political one, as once the Obama Administration committed to ending homelessness then there had to be a means to show that it had ended. But the VA policy responses, while they have effectively removed veterans from homelessness, do little to remove the conditions that lead veterans to become homeless. When you cannot act until veterans have a housing crisis, functional zero is the best you can achieve.

So are we at functional zero in Philadelphia? In 2016, if we assume that the 276 veterans staying in shelter programs are imminently moving out to housing and the 17 unsheltered veterans are the recalcitrant ones, this is plausible. The sheltered veteran count went down to about 200 in 2017 and, while this is obviously positive, it raises questions about where the actual “zero point” should be. Alternately, the number of unsheltered homeless veterans jumped to 40 in 2017. Did they all refuse housing?

My point here is twofold. First, “ending veteran homelessness” represents a “mission accomplished” moment in a process that has a much more ambiguous endpoint. If we declared zero with the PIT count at 293, then what does that mean when Philadelphia gets that number to 243 in 2017? Should Philadelphia look to see the 2018 PIT numbers reduced even more? Of course we should.

But such an effort contradicts having ended homelessness, as there appears to be more work to do. Here, in my second point, ending homelessness implies the job is done when instead ongoing vigilance is needed. Such a letdown is a common policy problem, for as the magnitude of an issue like veteran homelessness subsides, so does the accompanying sense of urgency. As a result we go off in search of the next pressing issue. Ending veteran homelessness is now no longer a top VA priority, with preventing veteran suicide having taken up that spot. Similarly, Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s of America (IAVA), in their annual member survey released a few weeks ago, cut the questions on homelessness that were on previous years’ surveys.

I want to be careful that I am not misunderstood here. I don’t want to pit suicide against homelessness in some policy cage match. And neither the VA nor IAVA is abandoning homeless veterans; both remain committed to addressing it. But I am concerned that our will to end veteran homelessness has started to ebb, and that these are early signs. And, paradoxically, the practice of ending veteran homelessness is unwittingly abetting this process.


NOTE: This blog piece solely reflects my own personal views. To be clear, I wrote this piece independently of the part-time appointment I hold as a researcher at the VA’s National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans, and it neither has been supported by nor reflects any endorsement by the VA.

Stephen Metraux