Op-Ed: What Can Be Done to Prevent Veteran Homelessness

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Homeless person holding out change cup with sign reading 'Please help a veteran. Will work for food.' (debbiehelbing/Getty Images) -- Getty Images

Donna Deutchman is the president & CEO of Homes 4 Families, a non-profit organization with a mission to build resiliency, economic growth, neighborhoods, and homes for veteran families.

When we consider how to address veteran homelessness, we must first consider the individuals comprising this vast population.

Currently, up to 80 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. These veterans require and deserve housing first or service delivery in order to return to civilian-life and become self-sufficient.

An insufficient number of obtainable housing options for veterans, in addition to other common issues many veterans face -- such as difficulty renting due to lack of rental history, difficulties finding employment or having poor credit -- leaves many veterans at high risk of becoming homeless.

To solve this issue, there must also be a new set of services designed for the growing number of veterans who are discharged every day for whom homelessness can be prevented.

Despite the great strides made to fund homeless programs to incentivize counties as well as cities and developers to build affordable housing, the number of homeless veterans continues to grow.

The number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles, the city with the highest number of homeless veterans, grew from 44,359 in 2015 to 57,794 in 2017.

This begs us to ask: What can be done to prevent veteran homelessness? To solve this national problem, an action plan is needed that, firstly, distinguishes chronic and situationally homeless veterans; secondly, requires service providers to investigate whether their programs work by conducting outcome research; and finally, increases funds for affordable housing and offers services that promote self-sufficiency and economic growth.

Strategy 1: Distinguish Between Chronic and Situational Homelessness

Chronic homelessness occurs when an individual is living on the street for a long period of time with few or no resources are at their disposal to modify their situation. Often, these people won't have the ability to modify their situation without the support of others.

It is very rare that someone will be homeless all of his or her life on a voluntary basis. Situational homelessness is used to describe when someone is forced into homelessness because of uncontrollable circumstances such as losing a job, suffering from important material loss or the loss of a main breadwinner.

According to USC's Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families, at least 40 percent of veterans separating from the service leave the military without identifying permanent housing.

This means that at a critical transition point in their lives, when many veterans are struggling to acclimate to a new everyday lifestyle that is vastly different from their days in the military, they are also juggling living in substandard housing conditions -- whether it be couch surfing, entire families living in one bedroom or sleeping in cars.

Looking at it from a different angle, the Department of Veterans Affairs observed that "about half of the new episodes of [veteran] homelessness occurred three years after discharge from active duty. This suggests a window of opportunity for preventing veterans from becoming homeless after discharge."

These veterans are situationally homeless, and not chronically homeless, and thus need a different set of services.

By finding out who and where these veterans are, we can take the veterans capable of independent living, higher education, a career, socioeconomic growth and a mortgage, and move them up and out of the cycle of homelessness.

By separating this group and giving them relevant services, traditional homeless services can be earmarked for the population that benefits most.

Strategy 2. Require Service Providers to Produce Meaningful Outcomes

Without requiring service providers to research and prove the efficacy of their own programs, veterans served by these providers can fall back into homelessness.

In this scenario, the service provider's resources will be spent providing ineffective or inefficient care to the same veterans, producing chronic homelessness through a lack of assistance or simply creating a revolving door for chronic homelessness.

Efforts are needed to recognize clear outcomes that demonstrate housing and services that help all groups access life-enhancing, wellbeing-focused interventions that serve their distinct needs.

This includes serving the chronically homeless in a manner that provides health care, nutrition and services that best address their long-term safety and honors their veteran independence.

Strategy 3. Grow Funds for Affordable Housing and Services

Affordable housing should be provided in supportive environments that encourage community reintegration and growth.

By using non-profit building models paired with wraparound services, creating affordable housing options for veterans is achievable by providing homeownership in an affordable manner.

With low- or zero-interest mortgages, veterans can begin to stabilize and earn equity. Affordable homeownership programs with self-sufficiency training also protect veterans from rising housing costs while teaching them the imperative life skills to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as financial literacy, health and nutrition, how to navigate benefits systems, trauma care, child development and more.

This ensures veterans can leverage their education and community support to have a bright future. If we implement the non-profit building models, we can produce affordable housing to veterans in a supportive neighborhood of peers with bountiful opportunities and prevent veteran homelessness.

By implementing these three strategies, I believe that homeless prevention funds will be used more efficiently and in ways that have long-term, multi-generational effects on our nation's heroes.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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