DC is closer than ever to ending veteran homelessness

A white man in a green jacket and black pants carries a black backpack on one shoulder and looks over a freeway overpass. A tent is in the background.

Peter Mation, a board member of Veterans on the Rise, participates in an outreach effort organized by the nonprofit to seek out homeless veterans and provide supplies to them and anyone living on the streets of Washington, D.C. Photo by Victoria Ebner.

D.C. has not yet met its years-old goal of eliminating veteran homelessnesss, but new permanent housing, better data, and improved identification of veterans all provide grounds for optimism that it may soon do so. The District has steadily chipped away at its numbers of homeless veterans over the past five years, despite struggling to provide housing for those newly facing homelessness amid the city’s affordable housing crisis.  

“I think veteran homelessness is going to be the type of homelessness we end first,” said Adam Rocap, deputy director of Miriam’s Kitchen, which provides meals and case management for people experiencing homelessness in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. He believes that ending veteran homelessness in the District will pave the way for progress on other forms of homelessness, particularly for single adults. 

In 2015, two neighboring jurisdictions — the Commonwealth of Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland — reached federal benchmarks for ending veteran homelessness, first set by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness that same year.  

The USICH no longer specifically pursues “functional zero” — a term still used by other groups — but says it maintains the goals of ensuring that veteran homelessness is a rare, brief, and one-time experience. The agency’s benchmarks for accomplishing this require that a city, state or community has ended chronic and long-term homelessness for veterans, and that veterans who become newly homeless can access affordable housing within 90 days. Communities that have met these benchmarks have more vets entering permanent housing or service-intensive transitional housing than are becoming homeless. 

Montgomery County and Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax counties have met the standards for the Community Solutions’ Built for Zero campaign, meaning that the number of veterans experiencing homelessness is less than the number of veterans who can be housed in a month. D.C. and the other communities that have joined the Built for Zero initiative receive coaching and support from Community Solutions as they use up-to-date person-specific data, and strategic-resources investments that make homelessness rare and brief. Since the initiative began in 2015, 11 communities have achieved the functional-zero standard.  

Functional zero does not mean that there are no longermore veterans experiencing homelessness, said Kristy Greenwalt, director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, but that the system is working well to quickly identify and house people. 

In the Homeward D.C. strategic plan to end homelessness, the Bowser administration set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2016, said Greenwalt, who noted a “really big push” in 2015 and into 2016. 

She said the District saw a decrease in federal funding during a three-year period from fiscal year 2016 through 2018 when the number of HUD-VASH vouchers fell. The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs provide HUD-VASH vouchers to jurisdictions such as the District, which can in turn offer them to homeless vets for rental assistance and other services. The VA also provides funds for rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention and diversion assistance to D.C. veterans through Support Services for Veteran Families. The District is also a pilot site for a VA-funded “shallow” subsidy program for longer-term rental assistance for veterans in high-cost cities.  

In fiscal year 2015, the D.C. Housing Authority received 104 HUD-VASH vouchers. DCHA received 45 vouchers in 2016, no new vouchers in 2017, and 63 vouchers in the first two rounds of 2018, according to data provided by HUD. Officials were not immediately able to explain the sudden drop in 2017. 

Federal spending has varied significantly in recent years. Congress reduced funding for new vouchers after 2015, according to the HUD-VASH website. In 2016, Congress provided $40 million, enough for 8,000 vouchers nationwide; in 2017 and 2018, legislators appropriated a cumulative $80 million for 10,000 vouchers over the two-year period. Between 2008 and 2015, HUD had provided $75 million a year for 10,000 vouchers, with the exception of 2011, when HUD awarded about 7,000 vouchers. 

Despite the funding challenges, local officials and advocacy groups see cause for optimism. Although D.C. has not yet reached USICH benchmarks, it has decreased the number of homeless veterans by 27% in the past five years and improved identification and data about veterans accessing the system.  

“We’ve seen great progress on veterans. I think we’re closer than we ever have been,” said Rocap of Miriam’s Kitchen. He has been working on veteran homelessness since 2013 as part of the DCICH Veterans NOW! Work Group, a coalition of community providers and government agencies. He is also a co-chair of the Coordinated Assessment and Housing Work Group, which oversees the District’s administration of its coordinated-entry system for single adults, seeking to standardize access to permanent housing.  

In 2018, the annual point in time (PIT) count revealed that the number of homeless veterans in the District had increased to 306 from 285 in 2017. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) report on the 2018 PIT count attributed this 7% increase to the challenge of preventing new veterans from becoming homeless. The 2018 numbers likely also increased because the District became better at identifying veterans who had not been included in previous counts.  

This year, the number of homeless veterans identified by the PIT count fell to 297, and the District reported finding housing for 300 veterans over the course of 2018. The city’s 2019 report noted that, as in 2018, there were likely veterans included who had been missed in previous counts. The District’s analysis of the count noted the difficulty of preventing single adults, a category that includes most of D.C.’s homeless veterans, from becoming newly homeless. Nationally, HUD announced on Nov. 12 that there are just over 37,000 veterans experiencing homelessness nationwide, down 793 from 2018. 

A graph depicting the number of veterans counted in the annual PIT Count and the number of veterans housed
Chart provided by The D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The PIT count, conducted on the coldest night of the year, serves as a snapshot of a city’s homeless population under the HUD definition of homelessnesss, which is more limited than the definition used by other federal agencies. Another essential tool recommended by HUD for better measuring and assisting homeless veterans is the By-Name list, which is updated monthly with the name of each person within a community’s homeless services system.  

“There’s a large number of people experiencing homelessness in D.C.,” said Emily Carpenter, veteran services division director at Friendship Place, a homeless services nonprofit based in Tenleytown. “There’s a lot more people who are on our By-Name list.” she said. According to Greenwalt, as of Nov. 7, there were about 340 veterans on the list and 76% had been matched to housing resources. 

The District faces a higher rate of homelessness per capita when compared to the two adjoining states. According to data collected by the USICH, in 2018 there were 485 homeless veterans in Virginia, which has a population of just over 8.5 million, and 574 in Maryland, with a population of 6 million people, based on census estimates. Those figures compare to the 306 homeless veterans in the District, which has a population of just over 700,000 people. 

“It’s mostly the same pressures that are making homelessness hard to tackle everywhere in D.C.,” Rocap said. A lack of affordable housing and the discrepancy between the high cost of housing and low incomes in the District are major drivers of homelessness, he said.  

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that renters in D.C. in 2019 would need to earn $32.02 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without paying more than the recommended maximum of 30% of their income on housing. The current minimum wage in D.C. is $14 per hour.  

The difficult housing market means that it can be difficult to house veterans within the 90-day window required by the USICH benchmarks, according to Greenwalt 

The District also sees people from other jurisdictions seeking services.  

A third of unaccompanied single adults experiencing homelessness said they lived outside of the District before becoming homeless, according to a 2019 supplemental survey to the PIT count performed in D.C. Respondents provided different reasons for choosing D.C., with nearly half saying they came to Washington because they were previously residents or wanted to join friends or family. However, 17% of respondents from outside D.C. said they came because it was easier to get shelter. Others said they sought work opportunities or assistance in finding long-term housing. 

“People move whether they’re homeless or not,” said Hillary Chapman, housing program manager at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The Council of Governments analyzes and publishes the data for the metropolitan region’s PIT count. 

It is true that some benefits and services are more accessible in D.C. than in the surrounding areas. The Veteran Affairs system funds transitional housing beds under the VA’s Housing Providers Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program, which awards daily funding to the grantee organization when that bed is filled. All of the region’s Grant and Per Diem beds are located in the District, which then includes those individuals within its annual PIT numbers, according to Greenwalt. 

The District also has a greater capacity than some surrounding areas for providing “low-barrier shelter services year-round, which means people experiencing homelessness can access services without requirements like having to provide proof of residency. 

Susie Sinclair, CEO of Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, which runs the only emergency men’s shelter in Montgomery County, said the facility is currently limited to 60 emergency slots under its county contract. However, she emphasized her organization does not direct people seeking shelter to D.C. and tries to find them housing in their area of origin.  

According to advocates working in D.C., technology improvements have been a powerful tool to strengthen the fight against veteran homelessness. We have better data so we know who we need to house better than before,” Carpenter said.  

Better technology has made it easier to work with Veterans Affairs to verify veteran status and to streamline the process. “The data quality has gotten so much better in the last year and a half,” said Greenwalt 

Among the housing resources allocated to support veterans, some of the most crucial have been permanent supportive units built specifically for veterans.  

The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence opened in 2017 on North Capitol Street near Union Station and now provides 60 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans. Conway’s location, Rocap explained, makes it attractive to veterans already in the District who were previously staying at Community for Creative Non Violence or who need to access other services in D.C. The Conway units have either remained full or been quickly filled, Carpenter said.  

Within the next few weeks, an additional 77 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans will become available in Abrams Hall at the reimagined Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus thanks to a collaborative project among six DC agencies and the nonprofit organization HELP USA. 

“When you have the resources, when you’re using data to make strategic decisions … homelessness is solvable,” said Greenwalt. “I think we’re closer than ever.” 

This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org

Issues |Veterans

Region |Washington DC

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