Progress, Although More to Do on Veteran Homelessness in NYC
Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
According to the city Department of Homeless Services, there are 962 veterans in city shelters, a 77 percent decrease since 2011, when there were 4,227 veterans in the city's shelters. There are 14 veterans living unsheltered, a 97 percent drop since 2011, when there were 450, according to D.H.S.
According to D.H.S., 90 percent of the 962 veterans still in shelters have housing plans, meaning there are resources available such as rental assistance or supportive housing, and that they need to implement those plans, for example by finding private housing or finishing paperwork for subsidized housing.
This is certainly welcome news, and proof that when the right resources are provided, a large crisis like veteran homelessness can be reduced significantly. Federal resources have worked, and Mayor de Blasio's office has prioritized working to coordinate federal resources along with private funding to promote these programs, such as this week's start of construction on a property in the Bronx that will provide 56 apartments to house homeless veterans. The funding for this initiative comes from federal programs and corporate donations, while the outlay of NYC tax dollars appears to be minimal or none. But it is nevertheless an important solution, and NYC government has an important role in promoting it and ensuring its success.
This is not "Mission Accomplished" for veteran homelessness in NYC, however. There are veterans who we believe aren't being counted in the numbers shown above. Last month we included a large section on the current state of veteran homelessness in NYC in a report we released, which includes background information and recommendations for the work yet to be done on this critical issue. The section is included below. The full report can be viewed here: Change is Essential: Report on the 2015 Survey of NYC Veterans Policy Priorities.
Improving Services for Homeless Veterans
Advocates have proposed that NYC agencies work more effectively to provide outreach, services, housing, and tracking of veterans who are homeless on the streets, in shelters, living in their cars, in temporary housing situations (with friends or family members), or hidden away on rooftops and other out-of-sight areas throughout NYC because they have nowhere else to call home. This initiative ranked third in receiving the strongest support of the sixteen listed in the survey. A total of 94.13% of respondents indicated that they view improving homeless services as either essential or very important.
Homelessness in NYC. Overall homelessness in NYC is at an all-time high, with more than 59,000 individuals—approximately 20,000 of whom are children—in need of permanent housing. This represents a 10% increase since the inauguration of Mayor de Blasio. Despite these rising numbers, veteran homeless has decreased significantly, largely due to robust federal resources that have enabled a supportive system for moving homeless veterans from the street to a shelter, then to temporary housing, and eventually into permanent housing.
Federal Funding to NYC. Veteran homelessness has received significant attention nationally, and NYC government received a grant from the Obama administration last year in the amount of $3.4 million as part of a nationwide initiative to end veteran homelessness. Cities across the U.S. have participated in a targeted effort in which cities receive funding and technical assistance to set and meet goals toward ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Veterans’ entitlements to federal services and benefits, including those who are homeless, are determined by a web of statutes and regulations surrounding discharge status and length of time served in the military.
NYC Department of Homeless Services (NYC-DHS). Resourced by federal funding received by NYC, NYC-DHS leads the Veteran Service Unit (VSU), which includes representatives from federal agencies, and exists as a triage point for homeless services, linking veterans to housing and other resources and benefits for which they are eligible. When appropriate, and if space is available, the VSU refers homeless veterans for transitional housing at one of two program shelters for veterans: Borden Avenue Veterans Residence for men and women in Long Island City and a men-only residence on Porter Avenue in Brooklyn.
Direct Federal Programs for Veteran Homelessness. In addition to the funding listed above, the Obama administration has further dedicated millions of dollars that go directly to providers, programs, and housing vouchers for homeless veterans. These dollars do not pass through NYC government. There are several different programs, but the largest include:
- HUD-VASH. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the VA have issued thousands of HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers, subsidies to qualifying low-income homeless veterans in NYC that allow veterans and their families to pay approximately 30% of their income toward rent. This program works in conjunction with other efforts to provide housing stability that prevents veteran homelessness.
- Additional funding for homelessness prevention is distributed through the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. Seven nonprofit agencies in NYC have contracts with the VA worth millions of dollars, a large portion of which goes toward veterans’ rental arrears. SSVF also provides services designed to support housing stability for veterans and family members, to include assistance with health care, legal issues, child care, housing counseling, transportation, and personal financial planning.
Other Assistance for Homeless Veterans. Outreach teams meet with homeless individuals and ask if any of them have served in the military. These teams typically count anyone who has served in the active or reserve forces as a veteran, regardless of whether they meet the VA’s definition of “veteran.” Homeless veterans who are ineligible for the federal programs listed above due to discharge status or amount of time served in the military may be eligible for other assistance using other federal, state, or city funded programs to assist homeless individuals. Veterans who do not qualify for VA programs are often granted supportive housing through programs funded in partnership between NY State and NYC (NY/NY I, II, or III). Service providers who work with homeless veterans seek out these other programs to assist those who do not meet the VA’s definition of “veteran,” and often can provide these other supportive housing options as well.
NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (CCoC) Veterans Task Force. In order to coordinate otherwise disparate funding and resourcing of veteran homelessness initiatives in NYC, the NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (CCoC) formed the Veterans Task Force to work toward improving coordination of all resources serving homeless veterans in NYC to end veteran homelessness before the end of 2015. The end date of the Veterans Task Force is stated as December 2015, although current planning assumes the CCoC Veterans Task Force will continue indefinitely beyond the end of 2015. The Executive Committee of the Veterans Task Force includes NYC government officials, to include the Commissioner of MOVA, as well as heads of the major service provider agencies. There is currently no veterans community representative on the Executive Committee, although veterans are represented by one provider and MOVA.
Current Progress. The Mayor’s office announced in April that fewer than 1,000 homeless veterans remained in NYC shelters, a reduction of 40% from the number of homeless veterans reported last year, and that there are fewer than 20 street homeless veterans living on the streets and an additional 30 that are chronically homeless but sheltered. Mayor de Blasio has stated that his administration will end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. The goal has been stated as “functional zero.”
Questions and Challenges. While advocates celebrate the vital resourcing and hard work that has resulted in many successes, they continue to point out gaps and areas for continued improvement, and question some of the data defining current successes. These questions and challenges include:
- Complex Individual Cases. Robust, targeted federal programs have succeeded in moving a large number of homeless individuals into housing because they met eligibility requirements and had situations that aligned with the design of these programs. Now that these programs have had several years to succeed, many individuals in the system remain chronically homeless, in shelters, or in housing that is not yet permanent because their situations are not as straightforward in comparison. These individuals have more complex cases, in that they may not meet eligibility requirements, or they may have complicated medical and/or legal issues, and their cases require individualized attention and support over a longer span of time to eventually transition into permanent housing. Additionally, veterans who are ineligible for federal programs due to discharge status, legal issues, or behavioral health issues that create shelter concerns can be left trapped in three-quarter houses. Three-quarter houses in NYC have recently received attention for misuse of government funding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
- Limited Housing Available to HUD-VASH Recipients in NYC. The HUD-VASH program requires that apartments pass an inspection prior to a voucher recipient moving in, to ensure the safety and security of individuals. Unfortunately, there is a disparity between available “affordable” apartments and what the voucher pays for. Some landlords may also deny HUD-VASH recipients a lease due to bad credit ratings, mental health issues, or other concerns stemming from their past histories. As of the release of this report, rent increase regulations have expired, which may further threaten the limited amount of affordable housing available within NYC for HUD-VASH recipients.
- “Functional Zero.” The goal of the federal initiative to end veteran homelessness is to reach “functional zero,” which the CCoC Veterans Task Force has defined as 300 or fewer veterans in shelters, and zero street homeless in NYC. Maintaining “functional zero” into the future will require continued funding, even as federal funding will eventually recede. This is especially critical as the large macro efforts will have a diminishing effect on the veterans who need the greatest interventions.
- Veterans Not Counted in Annual Point-in-Time Count. Advocates have pointed out errors that occur with annual point-in-time counts that attempt to survey the number of unsheltered individuals out in public on one night each January. Errors in particular occur in counting homeless families.
- Count of NYC Street Homeless. Advocates who work with unsheltered veterans have expressed surprise at hearing that NYC has identified fewer than 20 street homeless individuals within the five boroughs. Some have observed that in particular, younger veterans are avoiding identification as unsheltered even when they meet the criteria (see below). Other individuals who have served in the military and received discharges that were not honorable may not be aware that NYC agencies will track them as veterans and provide assistance.
- Finding and Serving Younger Unsheltered Veterans. Many in the youngest generation are confronting systems of poverty for the first time and feel alienated by shelters that may expose them to drug use, recreate situations similar to those in which military sexual trauma occurs, or overwhelmingly aggravate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress. These veterans are adept at surviving in the short term with few resources and are not detected by routine homelessness counts. Despite being highly capable individuals, some of these veterans are extremely vulnerable, living on the edge of spiraling further into poverty and illness. Bringing these men and women into programs that adapt to their needs requires creative efforts and additional funding, but that cost pales in comparison to what will be needed if they become chronically homeless.
- Conditions in Veteran-Only Shelters. Veterans have reported that living conditions in veteran-only shelters have been problematic and that female veterans in particular have been vulnerable to attacks. Homeless shelters are subject to frequent inspection, and many dedicated individuals work to create safe spaces that meet the basic needs of individuals who require shelter and assistance with transitioning toward permanent housing. Yet this system is not free of problems and more can and must be done to fully ensure safe and sanitary living conditions, and that the basic needs of sheltered individuals are being met.
- Inadequate Family Housing. Advocates and homeless veterans have reported that adequate transitional housing for veterans with dependent children is not currently available. This disproportionately affects homeless women veterans, and the current statistic nationwide is that women veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to be homeless.
- No Shelter Options for Service Animals. Some veterans may be prescribed the assistance of trained service animals, such as guide dogs, hearing dogs, or other service dogs trained in specific tasks related to a service-connected disability. No shelter options in NYC are currently available, however, for veterans with service animals, even if prescribed by a VA health provider.
- Quality Disparities Between SSVF Providers in NYC. Some veterans have reported that they have engaged various SSVF’s and been offered different monetary amounts based on unknown criteria. Veterans and advocates have also noted that quality disparities in the services provided by some of the NYC-area SSVF providers are not being addressed, and providers are not being held accountable for low-quality services or misstated numbers of those being served.
Respondent Comments. Comments on veteran homelessness include:
- Helping homeless veterans is a priority.
- Veteran homelessness definition and services need improvement.
- Please focus on homeless veterans, their families, and career opportunities and mental health treatment for our veterans.
- For the past several decades our homeless veterans (myself included) have been forced to go to Bellevue Hospital, and Bedford Atlantic Men's Shelter for processing. This is beyond abominable. What is immediately needed is a 24-hour green house, fully-secured veteran only facility to handle this matter and funding for more veteran-only SRO's and apartments.
- Do much more to get homeless vets into housing. I have seen too many vets on the streets who suffer from alcoholism, mental problems and PTSD. I have personally seen many refuse services in order to maintain the sad routine of drunkenness in preference to enforced policies in shelters. This is a very complicated problem as many of these vets may have a less than honorable discharge and hold grievous resentment towards any governmental or relief society. What can we do to help these vets who fall through the cracks and remain homeless and bitter and beyond the reach of regular aid channels?
Recommendations. A large number of previously homeless veterans have successfully been placed into transitional and permanent housing with appropriate supportive services to help them achieve further progress. This is success worth celebrating. Yet there still remain complex and conflicting eligibility requirements that frustrate these individuals, as well as service providers within the system, and hinder many steps that would otherwise be recognized as forward progress. Too many veterans struggling with homelessness also do not make it into these systems to be counted and to receive help. We therefore make the following recommendations:
- The CCoC Task Force on Veteran Homelessness—or a city-led equivalent, if the CCoC is dissolved in the future—must serve well beyond the end of 2015 to coordinate the efforts of all organizations working in NYC to end veteran homelessness. The Task Force should also make recommendations for future city funding needed to sustain “functional zero” over the next decade. NYC government cannot allow the progress reached thus far to be undone by lack of attention, coordination, and funding beyond 2015.
- The CCoC Veterans Task Force should include at least one advocate from the NYC veterans community, beyond the providers and MOVA, on its Executive Committee to represent community viewpoints and engage with city officials and agency leadership on decisions and strategies.
- City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should continue regular case consultation meetings to ensure chronically homeless veterans are moved into shelters, and that each veteran within the system, even those with complex cases, receive the full individualized attention needed to create a unique pathway to permanent housing for each veteran. These case consultations must include veterans who are not eligible for federal programs.
- City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should continue to refine and streamline the system that moves veterans seamlessly from the streets to a shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.
- City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should find ways to address the following: providing more options for family housing; resolving quality issues and disparities in services offered by SSVF providers; and ensuring safety and adequate conditions in NYC-DHS shelters.
- City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should address ways to provide shelter options for veterans with prescribed service animals. A veteran should not have to choose between keeping a service animal or going into a shelter.
 Page 53R, “The City of New York Schedules Supporting the Adopted Expense Budget for Fiscal Year 2015,” http://www.nyc.gov/html/omb/downloads/pdf/ss6_14.pdf