Last week, Virginia became the first state in the country to end chronic veteran homelessness, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced in a press release. The milestone declaration means that every veteran in the state has housing, except for those were offered shelter but declined, according to the federal government’s definition.
By streamlining resources and having the Department of Veterans Affairs, public housing groups, local utility companies and other key partners collaborate on the issue, Virginia has housed 1,432 veterans since October 2014, the governor’s office reported.
To maintain its federal homelessness designation, Virginia has to be able to secure a home for a veteran within 90 days, and have more homes available than the number of veterans who are in need of shelter, according to the Washington Post.
The achievement is the culmination of efforts that began in June 2014, when McAuliffe committed to first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in June of last year. The initiative is calling for an end to veteran homelessness by the end of this year. Since then, 20 mayors and county chairs throughout the state have joined in, along with 57 other mayors in cities across the country.
Veterans are twice as likely as other Americans to become chronically homeless. On a single night in January, there were 49,993 homeless veterans across the U.S. The majority of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders, including many who live with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Chronic physical illnesses also tend to be more common and severe among homeless veterans than other homeless populations.
Part of Virginia’s success hinged on its implementation of the “housing first” model. The approach encourages housing people in need first, and then addressing their employment and health/mental health issues afterwards.
To help expedite the process, the state organized a “100 Day Challenge” among four communities in Virginia. At the end of the period in February, Roanoke, Richmond, the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads were able to house 462 veterans by harnessing community outreach efforts and housing programs.
While Virginia is the first state to eradicate chronic veteran homelessness, a number of major U.S. cities have succeeded in completing the FLOTUS challenge. Phoenix and Salt Lake City reached the goal on chronic veteran homelessness more than a year ago, and New Orleans, Houston, and Las Cruces, New Mexico have all done so this year.
McAuliffe said this recent success will serve as a “launching pad” to end chronic homelessness for all Virginians by the end of 2017.
“This is an important victory in our ongoing efforts to make our Commonwealth the best place on earth for veterans to live, work and raise a family,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “However, we must remain committed to keeping homelessness among veterans, and, all Virginians, rare, brief and non-recurring.”
With more than 600,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, and over 100,000 chronically dealing with the problem, the U.S. is currently dealing with mass homelessness on a scale “not seen the Great Depression”, Think Progress reports. While temporary homelessness has never gone away, the issue of chronic homelessness is a relatively new phenomenon. This is largely due to policy changes during the Reagan administration, which slashed the availability of affordable housing through a number of mechanisms. “At the same time, gentrification sped up, with cities getting rid of cheap housing like single room occupancy units and replacing them with more expensive stock, and units being built were more often for co-ops and condos for ownership instead of rent. Federal incentives to build affordable housing dried up. Add to that the AIDs crisis, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, cutbacks to the social safety net, and the rise in incarceration and subsequent hurdles for reentry, and you have today’s crisis,” Think Progress explains.
In 1970, before today’s homelessness epidemic, there was a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units. Today, there is a shortage of 3.2 million — a problem that advocates say doesn’t need to exist.
By starting with the goal of ending veteran homelessness, advocates hope they will be able to prove that homelessness in general is a solvable problem. There are mechanisms and funds that, if given the right resources, could fuel enough affordable housing to give everyone a home who needs it. If the country can house all of its homeless veterans, it should go a long way toward proving it can do so for all other homeless populations.
“There’s a bipartisan acknowledgment that people who have risked their lives for our freedom should not come home to sleep on the streets,” Laura Zeilinger, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal agency dedicated to homelessness, told Think Progress. “The work we’ve done with ending veteran homelessness and the progress we’re making is showing we have the right plan and when we invest in the solution and put the appropriations behind it, we can drive change.”
Moreover, spending those resources would actually yield savings in the long run. Multiple studies across the country have found that it saves millions to house the homeless, rather than leave them outside, simply by averting emergency room and policing costs.