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Homelessness in America: The Way to Zero Goes Through Cities

September 11, 2014
By Elisha Harig-Blaine, Principal Housing Associate (Veterans & Special Needs), National League of Cities
Dramatic progress in the effort to end homelessness can be seen across the nation thanks to bold leadership, unprecedented community collaboration and historic levels of federal resources. These elements are being paired with data-driven strategies that have resulted in a decline for one sub-population that we can all celebrate. Since 2010, Veteran homelessness has declined by 24 percent, paving the way for progress in other sub-groups of the homeless population.
Dedicating More Resources
Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows fewer homeless veterans than chronically homeless individuals or people in families (see chart). The lower number of homeless veterans comes because of historic levels of resources dedicated to this subpopulation.
Broad bi-partisan Congressional support exists for programs that span the spectrum of housing need. As the capacity of these programs has increased, the number of homeless veterans has steadily fallen. These resources have been complemented by philanthropic commitments. The Home Depot Foundation alone has committed $80 million that has helped cities build or preserve more than 10,000 units of housing for veterans. These investments combine with the unique health and service benefits available to Veterans to provide communities with the necessary resources to end veteran homelessness.
  Total Homeless Total Persons in Families Total Family Households Total Chronic Total Veterans
2010 649,917 241,951 79,446 109,812 76,398
2011 636,017 236,181 77,186 107,148 67,495
2012 633,782 239,403 77,157 99,894 62,619
2013 610,042 222,197 70,960 109,132 57,849
% change 2010-2013 -6.1% -8.2% -10.7% -0.6% -24.3%
Source: U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development Point-in-Time Counts  
Achieving “Functional Zero”
Recognizing this opportunity, local leaders in Phoenix and Salt Lake City began a concerted push to house all chronically homeless veterans in their communities. As a result, both cities have now reached a point called “functional zero.” These communities are defining functional zero as having reduced the chronically homeless veteran population to near zero and having the service delivery systems and resources in place that can rapidly identify, engage, and place into housing any remaining chronically homeless veterans.
These cities reached this point because of changes to their homeless service systems developed during community boot camps as part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. These boot camps have enacted system changes that have dramatically decreased the amount of time it takes to house the homeless. As a result of this work in more than 230 cities across the country, the campaign announced in June that they had housed 101,628 people, including 31,171 Veterans. By housing these individuals, communities have saved taxpayers approximately $1.3 billion.
To extend this progress, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has launched their 25 Cities Initiative. The initiative is helping accelerate the progress of ending Veteran homelessness in 25 of the nation’s largest cities, including Portland. All told, these cities have more than 22,000 of the nation’s homeless Veterans. When these cities succeed, the nation will have decreased Veteran homelessness by 47 percent in three years.
The decline in Veteran homelessness and the success in Phoenix and Salt Lake City show that homelessness, as we know it, can end. As more cities focus on ending Veteran homelessness, the improvements can be extended to other segments of the homeless population. People will always fall into homelessness, but just as our roads, bridges, and sewers need on-going maintenance, cities are showing that by developing and maintaining effective and efficient service systems, we can get homelessness to the point where we can rapidly end homeless episodes.
Our nation is in the midst of ending more than a decade of war. As Veterans return home, the public is all too aware that they are owed nothing less than the nation’s best opportunities. If communities lose this chance to show that public will and federal resources are not enough to end homelessness for our Veterans, we may never have the chance to show we can do it for anyone.
To build on the progress of the past four years and meet the federal goal of ending Veteran homelessness by 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced the creation of a Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. To date, more than 140 mayors, county officials, and state leaders have pledged their support. As elected leaders pledge their support, they are finding community organizations with new federal resources and national partners equipped with best practices developed from across the country.
City leadership is vital to accomplish this goal. Join the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness today online.
For information for how the National League of Cities can help your community end Veteran homelessness, email harig-blaine@nlc.org.

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