How Many Post-9/11 Veterans are Homeless?

It seems longer than three weeks since I've posted, and I moan the blogger's lament on the insatiable appetite of these wretched beasts. Here I'm posting a section from a book chapter on homelessness among post-9/11 veterans that I am just about done with. Comments are welcome, as I still am able to revise the chapter draft. So, without further ado...

How Many Post-9/11 Veterans are Homeless?

In 2007, New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm characterized homelessness among post-9/11 veterans as a “tsunami of homelessness.” Tsunamis of homelessness should be quantifiable, in that numbers provide a basis for distinguishing human tidal waves from hyperbole. Curiously, however, I have not come across any systematic attempts to assess the extent of homelessness among post-9/11 veterans.

In the absence an official estimate of the homeless, post-9/11 veteran population, the most widely disseminated unofficial estimate is that 12,700 OEF/OIF/OND (1) veterans experienced homelessness sometime in 2010. This estimate appears on websites of organizations as diverse the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the American Psychological Association, and the Congressional Record. None of these outlets describe who derived this estimate, or how it was derived, but it was almost certainly extrapolated from the Veterans Supplement of the 2010 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR, see page 7), where the estimate of 12,714 veterans aged 18 to 30 who were in shelter or transitional housing on at least one night in 2010 closely corresponds to this OEF/OIF/OND estimate. In effect, age here became a de facto proxy for deployment.

Despite the obvious problems with using an estimate of homeless veterans under age 30 to stand in for an estimate of homeless veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, in 2010 this was a plausible estimate. By circumstance, the number of OEF/OIF (2) veterans (3) was roughly equivalent to the number of veterans under age 30, (4) both coming in at about 1.2 million and overlapping in that some portion of the veterans under age 30 would have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during their service. Using either veteran subpopulation as a denominator, and the 12,700 estimate as the numerator, yields an approximate annual prevalence rate of 1%. This rate roughly corresponds to annual prevalence rates found for general non-veteran populations after adjusting for age (see, for example, Culhane et al., 1994; Culhane & Metraux 1999), suggesting that this estimate falls within a believable range.

However, this equilibrium did not hold. Since 2010, the number of veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have progressively outpaced the number of veterans under age 30. Looking at the 2015 AHAR (Solari et al., 2016) shows that, since 2010, the number of veterans under age 30 increased by 28%, (5) while the number of OEF/OIF/OND veterans increased by 41%. (6)  Moreover, the under age 30 homeless veteran estimate in the 2015 AHAR actually decreased by 5% during this period (from 12,746 in 2010 to 12,089 in 2015) so that the annual prevalence rate dropped to 0.8%. Applying this lower prevalence rate to a 2015 estimate of almost 2 million OEF/OIF/OND veterans would yields an estimate of around 16,000 OEF/OIF/OND veterans who were in shelters or transitional housing at some point in 2015. This would be a 23% increase from the original 12,700 estimate. Applying the same rate to the almost 4 million veterans from the post-9/11 era (about half of this era’s veterans are OEF/OIF/OND veterans) would yield roughly double this estimate.

I intentionally keep these estimates vague. This is because both the 2010 and these updated 2015 estimates employ decidedly back-of-the-envelope methodologies. No matter how many qualifications and provisos I mention here, any numeric estimate will inevitably be cherry-picked, stripped of its context, and used as fact. The original 2010 estimate provides a fine example of that. For another example, Lily Casura goes through a lengthy, detailed process of coming up with an estimate of homeless female veterans using heroic extrapolations similar to those that I undertake here. I'd like to take a blog post and assess her approach. In the meantime, Casura and I seem to disagree on the level of caution that needs to be taken with such estimates, as her numbers have been used as fact (such as in this WaPo op-ed), apparently with her blessing.  

In place of a definitive numerical estimate, I will leave you with three more general observations with which I am much more comfortable.

1)      By all indications, overall veteran homelessness has declined markedly over the past eight years. This conclusion reflects a wide consensus and is based upon annual estimates of homeless population size in the the go-to source has been the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) put out jointly by the US Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While the 2017 estimate shows a slight uptick in this estimate, the AHAR still shows the homeless veteran population to have declined since 2009 by as much as 48%.

2)      The post-9/11 era of military service is ongoing, and as such the numbers of veterans belonging to this era, and who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to grow. As I show here, just by virtue of increasing demographics, the number of veterans who become homeless will increase over time. Thus the 2015 assessment that I give should already be out of date. This is not to say that homelessness among these veterans is necessarily getting worse as much as there are more veterans who can become homeless.

3)      If history is a guide, the risk for homelessness among this population will also increase over time. There is an assumption that homelessness among these veterans occurs as a result of difficult transitions to civilian life. Evidence, both from this and prior cohorts, calls this into question, and further evidence shows that the risk for homelessness is a phenomenon that, among the general age group of these veterans, will increase over time.

Taken together, “rising tide” may be a more accurate metaphor than “tsunami” for the homelessness dynamics among post-9/11 veterans. Implicit to both metaphors is a call for increased attention and resources to the housing instability of this veteran subpopulation, but the alarmist tsunami rhetoric appears misleading. However, the question of “how many” homeless post-9/11 veterans there are is far from settled. Thus, in closing, I’d like to underscore the call, made by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) in their most recent policy agenda, for the federal government to “collect data on the number of chronically homeless veterans and the number of homeless veterans by conflict-era” (p. 80). For, in the words of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki: “I learned a long time ago I couldn’t solve a problem I can’t see.”


1 – OEF/OIF/OND refers to the combined group of veterans who deployed to Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Iraq, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation New Dawn (OND). As such, OEF/OIF/OND veterans are a subgroup of the larger group of post-9/11 era veterans.

2 - Operation New Dawn (OND) only commenced in October 2010 to replace Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), thus the 2010 estimate covers OEF/OIF veterans and subsequent estimates would cover OEF/OIF/OND veterans.

3 - The number of total OEF/OIF veterans for 2010 is unavailable, but from 2011 through 2015 the VA’s Public Health Office provided quarterly updates of the number of OEF/OIF (and later OEF/OIF/OND) veterans (see VA Health Care Utilization by Recent Veterans). From this series, I extrapolate there to have been roughly 1,250,000 OEF/OIF veterans in 2010.  

4 - Based on numbers provided in Exhibit 3.1 (p. 7) of the 2010 AHAR Veteran Supplement, there were 1,164,000 veterans under age 30 in 2010.

5 - The AHAR estimates that, in 2015, 132,847 veterans used an emergency shelter or transitional housing program, which amounted to 1 in 170 veterans experiencing sheltered homelessness during the course of that year (p. 5-7). Extrapolating from this (exact number is unavailable), they used a base number of approximately 22,584,000 total veterans in 2015. Of these, 6.6% (n=1,490,000) were under age 30, a 19% increase in the number of veterans under age 30 since 2010.

6 - OEF/OIF/OND population increased from 1,164,000 in 2010 (see note 3) to 1,965,534 in 2015.


Stephen Metraux