Honoring our Veterans can Begin With Housing

As this Memorial Day weekend approaches, it is unfathomable that so many men and women who've served in our nation's military have no roof over their heads. That any veteran should be homeless is tragedy enough, but equally alarming is that data shows veterans are overrepresented in the total homeless population.

For too long it has been widely believed that a homeless individual such as a veteran living on the street could not be placed in housing because the individual did not demonstrate "housing readiness."

Research now shows us that Housing First -- providing a homeless person with stable, permanent housing (not temporary shelter), and then providing essential supportive services such as job training and employment services, mental health and substance abuse treatment services -- is an effective way of helping a homeless person establish stability.

Study after study also demonstrates that Housing First works to keep people housed and improve their quality of life and is effective at ending homelessness while also being cost efficient. When you compare the costs of homeless persons' utilization of emergency rooms, jails, and their use of other public services to the cost of providing a housing subsidy and supportive services there is no comparison; permanent, supportive housing provided under a Housing First model saves taxpayer dollars.

Although the broader continuum of homeless service providers have increasingly embraced Housing First, some organizations are still resistant to employing a proven strategy. While Housing First might not work for everyone, more should be done to move it to the forefront of solutions to address the tragedy of homelessness among veterans.

For this reason I could not have been happier to hear Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, himself a retired U.S. Army General, discuss Housing First during a Senate hearing last week and state that he is "convinced it is a good way to go." He admitted not knowing much about the Housing First model prior to his current position, and credited Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan -- an expert on homelessness intervention -- with familiarizing him with the model's value and success.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Congressional Committees that authorize its programs should immediately consider how they can better utilize Housing First to move chronically homeless veterans off the streets, out of the shelters and into permanent supportive housing. They could start by examining where homeless veterans who enter the VA's permanent housing program (specifically the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Voucher Program) come from, and what their needs are. The Department should then aim to target more resources to the homeless veterans who have been on the street the longest, and who are likely the most costly utilizers of other public systems.

Creating permanent supportive housing for veterans, utilizing Housing First and other models, is not only the smart thing to do, it's the right thing to do. I am grateful that both the President and VA Secretary have recognized this, and now we must call on them to ensure their vision of zero tolerance for homelessness amongst veterans is realized.