As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to wind down, there is an increasing and concerned dialogue surrounding the nation’s support for veterans of all eras. It is especially ironic and distressing that a large number of those who defended this nation and our homes find themselves without a home.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the US Department of Veterans Affairs have estimated that as many as 62,000 veterans still remain homeless across the country on any given night, and more than 140,000 experience homelessness sometime during the year. Here in Massachusetts, that nightly number is estimated at more than 1,200.
Currently, just over 7 percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but veterans account for 16 percent of the homeless adult population. Homeless veterans today generally reflect the broader population of veterans, largely male and middle-aged however, some disturbing trends are emerging. According to government reports, young veterans are at high and increasing risk of homelessness and experience homelessness at twice the rate of their non-veteran counterparts. Female veterans are also at especially high risk for homelessness, with rates that are two to three times higher than non-veteran females.
There is some good news. With an increasing awareness of and attention to the problem of veterans’ homelessness, progress has been made, and successes have been achieved. The country is now more than halfway into a dedicated five-year campaign to end veterans’ homelessness, and a 20 percent reduction has been achieved nationwide, with select states, such as Massachusetts, demonstrating even greater progress. Much still needs to be done, however, to address the causes of homelessness among veterans and house those still in need if we are to ensure that no one who has served their country finds themselves living on the street.
As it has in so many other areas involving social innovation, Massachusetts has assumed a leadership role in the campaign to eliminate homelessness among veterans. Earlier this spring, at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, and Secretary of Veterans Services Coleman Nee led a team of federal, state and city officials in announcing Massachusetts’ Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness’s Integrated Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness Among Veterans. The state’s plan is a comprehensive strategy and course of action with the explicit goal of ending veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts by the end of 2015.
Massachusetts’ campaign to end veterans’ homelessness will accomplish its objective by realizing four primary goals: 1) Implement a housing strategy to re-house and stabilize veterans who become homeless; 2) Ensure veterans who are most at risk of homelessness remain housed to prevent homelessness; 3) Increase access to benefits and resources for veterans through greater intervention; and 4) Align and integrate federal, state, and community resources to support veterans through effective partnerships.
If the plan is successful in achieving the end of veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts — and there is strong confidence that it will — it will serve as a valuable blueprint and template for follow-on initiatives to solve the larger problem of overall homelessness in our society as well as addressing other complex social challenges.
Ending veterans’ homelessness, however, is not simple. It will require additional commitment of limited public resources and strong political advocacy from beyond just veterans groups. The public spotlight must remain on this serious veterans issue throughout the year.
Ending veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts and nationwide by the end of 2015 may seem like an ambitious and unreachable goal, but it is one that can and must be accomplished. The men and women who have served this country and have willingly taken on that risk of the ultimate sacrifice, of giving their all for our country, deserve no less.
C. Andrew McCawley is president and CEO of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston.