Dallas Morning News: Transition housing programs for veterans leave many behind
We must reimagine these programs to better serve this
This article originally appeared on the Dallas Morning News.
Nearly 37,000 veterans sleep in shelters or on the streets across the United States every night. Even for veterans who do have stable housing, millions live at or below the poverty line and experience food insecurity daily.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report, 11.1% of veterans between the ages of 18 to 64 lived in households reporting food insecurity. These staggering numbers highlight a broad issue with the support systems that veterans are given access to as they transition out of service.
Every veteran should have access to — at a minimum — housing, employment and health care after serving their country. The Department of Veterans Affairs and nonprofit community organizations designed to aid veterans must shore up programs that are tailored to equip veterans with the tools they need for a successful transition to civilian life.
In recent years, the number of homeless veterans seems to be on the decline. Still, more than 1.5 million veterans are defined as at risk of homelessness. As a demographic, veterans are 50% more likely than other Americans to become homeless due to poverty, housing inflation, lack of support networks and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
Not surprisingly, these specific factors have a residual effect on veteran adjustment. With these neglected factors and ever-changing economic circumstances, many veterans have limited to no resources available to help them navigate their transition to civilian life.
There are four different federal agencies, the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Labor and Housing and Urban Development, that fund more than ten different homelessness and food insecurity programs, including SNAP and the VA/HUD voucher program, to fight these problems in the veteran community.
In total, over $50.3 billion has been collectively spent on these programs since FY2005.
During that same period, health care obligations for homeless veterans reached $7.8 billion annually in fiscal year 2020, and $700 million for homeless-veteran programs was included in COVID-19 relief packages. Yet, veteran homelessness and hunger persist. Money alone is not enough to solve the problem.
First things first: Outreach needs to improve. The VA is too big and bureaucratic to reach every veteran that needs help in these areas, thus, many veterans don’t even know about the programs designed to help them. Only 50% of veterans are enrolled in VA health care, and even less use it on a regular basis. This is why Mission Roll Call has publicly advocated for more grant funding to community organizations: They have touchpoints in the veteran community the VA will, quite frankly, never have.
Second, the Department of Defense and the VA offer a Transition Assistance Program, which provides non-interactive information sessions on VA benefits, health care, education and employment to service members in the year leading up to their military departure.
While this information is necessary, this program is sorely underutilized. An estimated 40% of service members don’t attend all TAP classes, and almost 60% never participate. By these numbers, it is clear there is significant doubt of the program’s efficacy among the military community. Instead, transitioning service members need programs and resources that are tailored to their individual needs.
Additional housing initiatives like the Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program and Supportive Services for Veteran Families offer incentives through grants and affordable housing to veterans and landlords. Unfortunately landlords who use funding from these programs have little incentive to permanently fix the problem, since getting veterans into permanent housing from temporary housing means the loss of federal funding.
Transitional housing programs are meant to be temporary and an intermediate step between emergency shelter and permanent housing. Even still, there are several access barriers to these programs, such as education certification requirements. In addition, many require relocation that can further isolate veterans from their support system and increase unemployment rates among relocated veteran spouses.
Despite these systemic issues, these federal programs do help some, but the number of veterans still struggling to find permanent solutions to housing problems makes clear that our current systems are not enough.
If veterans are unable to find stable jobs, they are more likely to be in unstable housing situations and experience homelessness and food insecurity. And without food, shelter or support, far too many veterans are susceptible to self-harm and suicide. According to America’s Warrior Partnership’s findings, 22 to 24 former service members ages 18 to 64 take their own lives each day, and 18 to 20 former service members in the same age group die per day by accidental self-injury (that is, drug overdose).
Additionally, in December 2022, the veteran unemployment rate rose from 2.7% to 3.2%, while for nonveterans it declined from 3.6% to 3.4%. These statistics underscore that our veterans are in crisis, as well as the need for community integration and a holistic, individualized approach to veteran transition in order to bring these numbers down. In other words, these crises are connected, and investing in programs that address homelessness and
hunger will, in turn, have a positive impact on veteran unemployment and suicide rates.
When providing services to veterans, an understanding of military culture is essential. By investing in more integrated, community-based organizations and specialized support services, veterans will feel empowered and supported, and be more likely to succeed in the long run.
In addition, acknowledging all components of a holistic approach, from recreation health to education and spirituality, will instill in our veterans a newfound sense of confidence in these resources and lead to greater rates of utilization.
While veterans struggle to navigate so much as they transition to civilian life, the burden of finding resources and support need not also lie in their hands. This is the reason programs like TAP and HUD initiatives exist, and while they provide a foundation, there is still a gap between the amount of veterans who need support and those who successfully attain it.
To close this gap, we must reimagine how these programs function and better tailor them to the issues we know that veterans tend to face, such as higher rates of homelessness and hunger. No veteran should live without these basic human necessities. It’s time we listen to our veterans and invest in the transitional support programs they and their families need most.
North Texas native Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and a combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.