Understanding the Dynamics of Veteran Homelessness in the United States

Tonight. Across the United States. Approximately 144,000 veterans will be homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The rate of homelessness among vets is about twice as high as that of the general population. The VA has stated that eradicating veteran homelessness is a major priority of the agency. Accomplishing this goal necessitates an understanding by the public at large of the overall dynamics of veteran homelessness in the United States.

The Primary Causes of Veteran Homelessness

A growing amount of research has been undertaken to understand the primary underlying causes of veteran homelessness in the United States. A number of more prevalent causes of homeless among vets has been identified.

As noted a moment ago, the homelessness rate among vets is considerably higher than that of the general U.S. population. In addition to the 144,000 vets estimated to be without a home, 1.5 million veterans are classified as being at-risk for homelessness at any given point in time. The VA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defined “at-risk for homelessness” as being below the established poverty level and paying more than 50 percent of household income for mortgage or rent payments. Vets at-risk for homelessness also include those households with a member afflicted with a disability, a person who is living alone, and vets who are not employed.

The previously mentioned research studies have demonstrated that common precursors of vet homelessness include social isolation and a lack of support follow discharge from service. One in five veterans currently are living alone. The reality is that social networks prove vital to people experiencing a crisis or in need of some type of temporary assistance. Lacking this type of network or support system, a vet is classified as high-risk for homelessness.

At the present time, 467,877 vets are significantly rent burdened and pay over 50 percent of their monthly income for rent. More than half of the vets that are rent burdened are below the poverty level and just over 40 percent receive food stamps.

About 45 percent of the 1.6 million vets from Afghanistan and Iraq receive or are seeking disability compensation. Processing a disability claim takes about eight months. The range of disability payments starts at $127 a month for a vet with a 10 percent disability. A veteran with a full disability receives $2,796.

Mental health issues afflicting vets contributes to the high homelessness rate. This includes vets who become homeless in part because of a mental health issue. It also includes vets that develop a mental health condition while homeless, rendering it more challenging for them to obtain suitable housing.

The RAND Corporation reports that 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq vet suffer from major depression of PTSD. Moreover, one out of five of these vets have a traumatic brain injury.

Substance abuse if also a significant issue among veterans, particularly those who served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Upwards to 25 percent of vets who served in these theaters are thought to demonstrate symptoms of substance abuse disorder. Substance abuse disorder is yet another primary contributing factor to veteran homelessness.

Demographics of Homeless Vets

91 percent of homeless vets are male, although the number of homeless female vets has been on the increase in the past several years. This includes vets who are single mothers who are ending up homeless. 98 percent of all homeless vets are single.

76 percent of homeless vets are in cities. 39 percent of homeless vets are black, substantially overrepresented when compared to the overall veteran population (which is comprised of 11 percent black service personnel). Although the homeless population is becoming younger because of Afghan and Iraq vets, the largest age cohort of vets is between 51 and 61 years of age (and are male), or 43 percent of the total number of homeless veterans.

Veterans and Homeless Encampments

A majority of vets do not take advantage of temporary shelters, which is the case with overall population of homeless people in the United States. A growing number of homeless vets are congregating in what are known as homeless encampments.

A homeless encampment is a gathering of unrelated homeless people in what oftentimes are called “tent cities.” These encampments can range in size from a few people to over 100.

Homeless encampments are far from ideal living conditions for vets. They tend to be the locus of criminal activity, including violent crimes. Homeless encampments are also known for widespread drug use. Moreover, because a typical homeless encampment lacks access to toilet and other facilities, they are dangerous because of their unsanitary conditions.

Ending Vet Homelessness: United States Interagency Council on Homelessness

The United States Interagency Council on Homeless has been established with the laudable goal of ending veteran homelessness within the coming five years. The Council has adopted a five-point strategy to accomplish this objective:

  • Provide Affordable Housing
  • Provide Permanent Supportive Housing
  • Increase Meaningful and Sustainable Employment
  • Reduce Financial Vulnerability
  • Transform Homeless Services to Crisis Response Systems

Ending Vet Homelessness: Success Stories

In 2009, 702 mayors and nine governors pledged to end veteran homelessness in their jurisdictions by 2015. Out of this group of elected officials, only the City of New Orleans met this objective. Since 2015, two states and 29 other local communities effectively ended veteran homelessness. Although nearly all of the cities and states that made this pledge failed to meet the initial deadline, New Orleans and other jurisdictions are demonstrating that ending veteran homelessness in the United States is a possibility.

In the end, eliminating veteran homelessness in the United States will require a multifaceted, comprehensive approach to the problem. Eliminating veteran homelessness will require a coordinated commitment from different sectors, including:

  • Federal government
  • State governments
  • Local governments
  • Businesses
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Religious organizations
  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Mental health providers
  • Substance abuse recovery centers
  • Individual citizens