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An end in sight for veteran homelessness?

Despite tough economic times, fewer veterans on the streets

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 10 2012 1:55 p.m. MST

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Two-and-a-half years into an ambitious campaign to end veteran homelessness, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports the country is on track to get former soldiers off the streets by 2015.

Homelessness among veterans dropped 12 percent between January 2010 and January 2011, according to a report published in December. On a single night in 2011, 67,495 veterans were homeless compared to 76,329 in 2010.

"We're absolutely headed in the right direction as we work to end homelessness amongst those who have served our nation," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan in a statement. "There's plenty of work ahead to reach our goal, but these numbers validate the work done by both HUD and VA to reach our nation's homeless veterans and get them into permanent housing."

The statistics are a ray of sunshine at a time when data is painting an increasingly dark picture of poverty in America. Homelessness increased by an average of 6 percent among all populations and 16 percent among families last year, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The U.S. Census Bureau also announced in December nearly 50 percent of Americans are either living in poverty or classified as low income. Another December report by The National Center on Family Homelessness revealed the number of homeless children in America jumped 38 percent between 2007 and 2010.

Considering the economic conditions of the country, Donovan told The Washington Post the decline in veteran homelessness was "nothing short of extraordinary."

Since 2009, the VA and HUD have connected 33,597 homeless veterans with permanent housing and health care.

The number of homeless veterans staying in shelters, transitional housing programs or safe havens also increased last year, according to the report. Forty-one percent of veterans were unsheltered in 2011 compared to 43 percent in 2010.

The government's success in housing veterans is due in part to the VA's decision to do away with a longtime policy of requiring homeless veterans to treat substance abuse and mental ailments in order to qualify for an apartment, according to the Washington Post.

"Folks were initially concerned about the safety aspects of it," said Susan Angell, director of the VA's homeless initiatives. "We wanted to make sure they were clean and sober."

But, she said, the change in policy puts the government in a better position to end veteran homelessness "than at any time in the past."

HUD and VA sponsor a joint voucher program that gives needy homeless veterans housing support. Veterans pay 30 percent of their income to rent and the government picks up the bill for the rest. On average, each voucher costs taxpayers $6,500 a year plus $4,148 in case management services.

"It literally saved me," Mickiela Montoya, who served with the Army National Guard in Iraq, told The Washington Post. She uses a voucher to pay for the Orange County, Calif., apartment where she lives with her 4-year-old daughter.

VA and HUD want enough money to issue 10,000 vouchers a year through 2014. Right now, because there are not enough vouchers to go around, there is a waiting list in virtually all jurisdictions across the country.

"They tell me the waiting list is 500 deep," said Gary Bush, a homeless Navy veteran living in Virginia. He applied for a voucher but is less than optimistic about his chances of securing one.

Though he's hopeful for the future, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki acknowledged there's still much to be done.

"Our progress in the fight against homelessness has been significant, but our work is not complete until no veteran has to sleep on the street," he said.

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com TWITTER: @elizMstuart

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