From Homecoming to Homeless?

Posted on July 26, 2011

On the evening of July 14th, I welcomed my brother, who serves as a pilot, home from a six-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise. My three-year old daughter and I waited anxiously in the hangar with my parents, as well as my brother’s eight-month pregnant wife and his two small children. Finally, my brother and the rest of his squadron approached in their planes and performed a flyover. As I watched the planes land, the canopies open in unison, and these travel-weary young pilots get roses to hand to their anxiously waiting wives and families, I could hardly contain my pride and joy. However, I could not help but wonder how many of these men would soon face what so many veterans in this country are forced to experience: homelessness. 

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that there are already more than 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have been homeless. New research is showing that this group of veterans is becoming homeless much more quickly than veterans from Vietnam. On average, it took Vietnam-era veterans eight to ten years to progress from military life to homelessness; recent data indicates that present-day soldiers are ending up on the streets within a year of coming back to the States. Increases in redeployments, combat stress, and brain injuries have all contributed to this rapid fall into homelessness for veterans. In addition, our country is not fully prepared to deal with the mental health and basic living needs of these veterans. With an increase in women serving in the armed forces, there has also been an increase in women vets, many of whom have children. 

The VA has been very forthcoming with data about this problem and has vowed to do something about it. While most communities, including Richmond, have launched ten-year plans to reduce and end homelessness, the VA has committed to end veteran homelessness in five years. It has also begun to develop and target new funding streams to make this happen. Historically, the VA’s limited funding for homeless vets had been focused on transitional housing and services; this provided a “Band-Aid” to veterans experiencing homelessness, but it did little to provide the permanent housing those individuals needed. 

However, in 2008, the VA partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. In this program, veterans who meet certain guidelines can receive a rental subsidy for housing, as well as case management to assist them with maintaining their permanent housing. And in 2010, the federal government approved funding for the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program. This new VA program will award grants to private non-profits and consumer cooperatives to provide supportive services to very low-income veterans and their families residing in or transitioning to permanent housing. The grantees will provide a range of supportive services designed to promote housing stability.

As a leader in permanent supportive housing in both Richmond and South Hampton Roads, Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) has been actively involved in these new funding streams, in addition to serving numerous veterans in our existing programs. Because the HUD VASH funding stream is not able to cover security and utility deposits, VSH was able to use Federal Stimulus Funds to cover this cost, allowing qualified veterans and their families access to this vital resource. In addition, VSH was recently awarded $84,000 through the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program; this funding will be used to provide housing and services to veterans in our existing programs. Finally, VSH served as the lead applicant for a Richmond community application for the SSVF funds, as well a partner agency in an application submitted in South Hampton Roads. This funding will allow VSH to begin to both prevent and homelessness in ways that specifically target veterans and their families. 

Are these measures enough to end homelessness among veterans? Only time will tell. I sincerely hope that soon there will not be another veteran in this country who has to spend a night on the street. These brave individuals volunteered their time and well-being to protect mine; I just hope that through VSH, I am able to return the favor.

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