Despite all of the negative economic trends these last few years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had some good news to report this week: There was actually a slight decline in the nation’s homelessness in 2012.
Last January local planners across the nation conducted a one-night count of their sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. These estimates reveal a marginal decline in overall homelessness (0.4 percent) along with a 7 percent drop in homelessness among veterans and those experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness.
"This decline tells us that the Obama Administration is on the right path, working together across agencies to target federal resources to produce a measurable reduction in veteran homelessness," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a statement.
The administration’s strategic plan, called Opening Doors, strives to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2015; and to ending homelessness among children, family, and youth by 2020. The plan is based on the idea that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs on the federal, state and local level must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.
The decline in veteran homelessness in particular is attributed to the close collaboration between HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on a joint program called HUD-VA Supportive Housing.
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The 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress estimates there were 62,619 homeless Veterans on a single night in January in the United States, a 7.2 percent decline since 2011 and a 17.2 percent decline since 2009.
"This report continues a trend that clearly indicates we are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among veterans," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. However, he also said that, "While this is encouraging news, we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no veteran has to sleep on the street."
This is especially true in Vermont, for while homelessness has declined overall throughout the country, the Green Mountain State saw its numbers rise.
Local homeless housing and service providers in Vermont reported that the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people increased by one percent between 2011 and 2012, from 1,144 to 1,160. Moreover, the number of chronically homeless doubled from 94 in January 2011 to 190 last January. The number of homeless veterans also increased, from 81 in 2011 to 109 in 2012.
These numbers are unacceptable. Ski resorts throughout the state may be lamenting the unseasonably warm temperatures of late, but it’s still too cold for anyone to be sleeping outside. And while homeless shelters here in Windham County and throughout the state provide a valuable service in keeping people off the street, these are only temporary solutions. Greater efforts must be made to move these people to permanent housing and provide them with the resources to get back on the path to long-term stability. One such resource, at least for veterans, is a $300 million grant program administered by the VA for community organizations. Through September 2012, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program has aided about 21,500 veterans. Grantees provide a range of supportive services to very low-income veteran families living in or transitioning to permanent housing, including case management, legal assistance, financial counseling, transportation, child care, rent, utilities and other services aimed at preventing homelessness.
"Homeless prevention grants provide community partners with the opportunity to help prevent and end homelessness on the local level," said Shinseki. "This is a crucial tool in getting at-risk veterans and their families on the road to stable, secure lives."
The deadline for applying to the SSVF program is Feb. 1, 2013. After everything our veterans have sacrificed for us, provide these support services to help them get their lives back on track is the least we can do for them. And if the grant program proves successful for veterans there’s no reason it can’t be replicated for the general homeless population as well.
Not only is it the right thing to do, but it makes economic sense as well. A few dollars invested in helping the chronically homeless gain long-term security, stability and independence ultimately will lessen the financial burden on all of us down the road.