Homelessness Among Veterans Plummets, but That's Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Federal officials report a third of homeless veterans have found shelter, but that's only the first step in the long path toward integrating veterans into American civilian life.

Ernest Maas, a homeless U.S. Navy veteran living in Arlington, VA. (Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


Feb 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Miko El Bey stood across from a homeless veterans shelter recently, sharing a cigarette on a slush-covered corner with two fellow residents as the Long Island Expressway droned steadily in the background. Between the three of them, the veterans had served 10 years in the Army, Navy, and Marines.

Unable to find work when they left the military, El Bey and her cohorts found themselves at the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence, a short-term shelter in Long Island City, New York, on a lonely stretch of road sprinkled with warehouses and parking lots. Its entryway houses three guards barking into walkie-talkies and a metal detector, a setup reminiscent of the security hoops one jumps through to enter a prison.

“I think the military is so far removed from civilian life that civilians forget that the military is still actually used for combat,” said El Bey. “A lot of people like us did not do administrative jobs, so when we get back, what are we going to do here?”

El Bey has been at the Borden Avenue shelter for six months, after serving four-and-a-half years in the Navy. With its 243 beds, the shelter is one of two short-term housing options for homeless vets in New York City who are referred through the Department of Homeless Services.

Despite the sense of despair in the setting and the challenging reality that lies ahead of El Bey, according to a lofty goal set by the Obama administration, her story is one of success.

In 2010, the President pledged to end homelessness among American veterans by the end of 2015. Now in its final year, the initiative has seen a 33 percent decrease in homelessness among vets—which amounts to about 25,000 veterans having a roof over their heads across the country.

Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans report enviable success in helping chronically homeless veterans find shelter—with New Orleans beating the deadline and effectively getting all of its vets off the street in January.

Between 2011 and 2014, New York City saw a 65 percent decrease in homelessness among vets, according to the Jericho Project, a supportive housing organization with a dedicated veterans initiative.

“It’s not because we’ve just gotten really good at helping homeless veterans, it’s because there’s been an extraordinary amount of federal and city resources devoted to this,” Tori Lyon, executive director of the Jericho Project, told TakePart.

When Obama announced his 2016 budget in February, he made a commitment to keep funding veterans' homelessness initiatives beyond the 2015 deadline through 2016.

“The question has been raised in a lot of communities, if we get the numbers down, is the federal government going to then say, ‘Oh you don’t need funding’?” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “This budget says, 'No, that’s not going to happen.' The money is on the table, and it just shows that we don’t have to accept homelessness as a given. It’s a solvable problem.”

Berg said he and his colleagues believe the end-of-2015 goal can be reached with the federal resources provided. But the challenge ahead is convincing landlords to house the veterans who are taken off the streets by outreach groups.

For those like El Bey, who says the only job she can hope to attract with her military skill set is a minimum-wage security guard gig, the cost of housing remains out of reach.

Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development–Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program has awarded Section 8 housing vouchers to organizations like the Jericho Project, to help connect veterans with affordable homes.

While Lyon said the HUD–VASH program has made “a big difference,” Berg pointed out that eligibility for the program varies depending on how a vet was discharged, when he or she served and for how long.

“Even if you have a decent job, it’s very difficult to afford your own housing,” said Lyon. “While there’s a lot more Section 8 housing, it’s never quite enough.”

Michael Ziegler, an Army veteran at the Borden Avenue shelter, expressed frustration with a lack of contact with DHS representatives, and mentioned a recent housing meeting at the shelter that had only reiterated his ineligibility for Section 8 support. For El Bey, joblessness still stands in the way of getting her own place.

“Everybody has those stickers that say, ‘We support vets, we hire vets,’ but then you apply and they’re like, ‘Oh, well you haven’t been sitting behind a desk for the last three years, so you don’t have experience,' ” she said.

While jobs for many vets remain elusive, the progress made under the Obama administration on sheltering them in the meantime has been staggering according to Lyon, who has worked on homelessness with the Jericho Project for 18 years.

“Homelessness seems like such an intractable problem, but I think we’re showing with the reductions we’ve been able to make in veterans homelessness that it really is a matter of resources,” she said. “It can be done and it’s being done with veterans.”

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