The Department of Veterans Affairs is intensifying efforts to end veteran homelessness after three years of no progress. But it could soon be overwhelmed by a tsunami of need as the full effects of a year-long pandemic and ending a moratorium on evictions become clear.
While no complete count has been made of the homeless population this year, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge said in a March statement that her department's 2020 report of 37,250 homeless veterans was "devastating" enough.
"We know the pandemic has only made the homelessness crisis worse," she added.
Fudge and VA Secretary Denis McDonough pledged improvements in the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or HUD-VASH, program to provide vouchers for rental assistance and case management from the VA for homeless veterans.
More than 104,900 vouchers were issued between 2008 and 2019, according to HUD, but the program has been limited by the time-consuming process of verifying veterans' status and then determining their eligibility for the vouchers.
In a joint statement issued April 12, McDonough and Fudge said that one of their "new approaches to serving veterans for whom prior efforts may have fallen short" will be to expand voucher eligibility to those with less-than-honorable discharges and speed the process with a new digitized system.
The secretaries also made a markedly candid admission about the failure of their efforts to date, saying "progress towards ending veteran homelessness has stalled" despite the work of multiple federal agencies, cities, states and more than 2,100 nonprofits since 2010. It's a far cry from the confidence with which then-President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced in 2009 they planned to end veterans homelessness entirely by 2015.
The question remains: Will new efforts make a difference in light of a homelessness epidemic expected to balloon as the pandemic ends?
An annual survey overseen by HUD estimated there were 37,000-plus homeless veterans, out of a total homeless population of about 580,000, each year from 2018 to 2020. The 2021 survey was cut short by pandemic restrictions.
HUD estimates that 37,878 veterans were either living on the streets or in emergency shelters in 2018; 37,085 in 2019; and 37,252 in 2020.
The VA and HUD secretaries also pointedly noted that the 37,000-plus figure "does not account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added to the nation's housing challenges."
Veterans who have experienced homelessness told Military.com that getting off the streets and into permanent housing is a long-lasting struggle that requires personal resolve and a range of support services to get past the panhandling and dumpster diving that many use to survive.
Former Air Force Sgt. Keven Kinsey and former Marine Corps Cpl. Jeff Stout count themselves among the lucky ones who got off the street before the pandemic hit.
Kinsey had scrounged a tent and was living in a Los Angeles alleyway, where police mainly gave him a pass as a harmless alcoholic.
"Nobody wanted to deal with 'Drunk Kevin' [as he was known on the street]. He was a fool," Kinsey said of his former self.
In Rochester, New York, drugs took over Stout's life. Back problems that began in the service led to surgeries, job loss, a failed marriage and then what he called a "downward spiral" from painkillers to heroin and cocaine use.
He lived where he could. "Sometimes under a bridge; sometimes in somebody's car. Sometimes, somebody let me spend the night someplace. Just poppin' all over the place, man," he said.
Kinsey and Stout were among several current or formerly homeless veterans who spoke to Military.com on the homeless veteran issue -- which three previous administrations and now the Biden administration have pledged to eliminate. Some gave their full names, while others spoke on a first name-only basis.
Both Kinsey and Stout eventually kicked their drug habits and got off the street with some help before the pandemic took hold in early 2020. It brought on an economic downturn that officials and advocacy groups fear has led to a major surge in homelessness nationwide, although there currently are no reliable estimates on the scope of the problem.
However, the VA signaled in May 2020 just how bad the situation had become during the pandemic by issuing a plea for public donations to assist homeless veterans.
Despite its own budget of more than $240 billion, the department asked the public to write checks, donate food and contribute mobile phones to help homeless veterans and those at risk of eviction during the pandemic.
Then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said, "These donations can make a critical difference in the department's ability to protect and serve vulnerable veterans during this public health emergency."
Housing First, Everything Else Later
In their April 12 statement, McDonough and Fudge announced a series of initiatives to tackle veteran homelessness, with an emphasis on a "Housing First" policy to move vets into apartments or shelters quickly and deal later with the underlying issues of unemployment, addiction and mental health through supportive services.
The $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 12 includes $10 billion in funding for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness, they said.
Biden's proposed American Jobs Plan "would invest $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable homes," the secretaries said, although passage of the bill is problematic in a deeply divided Congress.
Even if the money becomes available, the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, has warned that the VA may lack the continuing supportive services necessary to keep veterans housed and to overcome the reluctance of landlords to rent to those who may have addiction or mental health issues.
In a May 2020 report, the GAO said, "Shortages in VA case managers may limit the number of veterans they are able to serve. ... High housing costs and limited stock make it difficult to find affordable housing for homeless veterans."
HUD attempted again this year to get a grasp on the scope of the homeless problem through its Annual Homeless Assessment Report, a point-in-time survey conducted each January mainly by volunteers and community groups, but the effort was severely limited by the pandemic. A number of cities, including New York and San Francisco, declined to participate because of COVID-19 restrictions.
As a result, HUD and the VA have no reliable current estimates or projections on the number of homeless veterans, or a breakdown on those counted as "sheltered" and "unsheltered."
The agencies classify sheltered veterans as those living in emergency shelters provided by cities and community groups, while the unsheltered are in places "not fit for human habitation," such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings or the squalid tent cities that pop up nationwide.
"HUD does not have projections on the impact of COVID-19 on veteran homelessness at this time," a HUD spokesperson said in a May 10 statement to Military.com. statement to Military.com this month. The lack of data is more pronounced for unsheltered veterans.
In the statement, a HUD spokesperson said, "We don't have good data on the number of veterans who have not been served by HUD-VASH due to discharge status" in the past. Last year, Congress expanded HUD rental voucher eligibility to those with other-than-honorable discharges.
Only about one-third of the communities that normally participate in annual assessment "conducted some form of an unsheltered count" this year because of COVID safety concerns, the HUD statement said.
A Looming Evictions Crisis
Christine Pietryga, chief operating officer of Pittsburgh-area nonprofit Veterans Leadership Program, said the organization had seen "something of a surge" in evictions during the pandemic despite the federal eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
"We try to be proactive in getting [veterans] up-to-date on rent," she said. But some individuals "have fallen significantly behind on rent during COVID."
Landlords currently are restricted from giving eviction notices to those who have fallen behind on rent, Pietryga said. But there is concern that evictions will skyrocket with the moratorium due to expire June 30.
In a May 5 ruling on a lawsuit brought by landlords from several states, Judge Dabney Friedrich in federal district court in the District of Columbia vacated the CDC's moratorium order on May 5. The CDC's administrative action exceeded its authority, she said in her ruling.
"The question for the court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not," Friedrich said.
On May 14, Friedrich stayed her ruling to allow for an appeal, but the prospect still looms that millions of Americans nationwide who have fallen behind on their rent could face eviction. Two vets helped by the Veterans Leadership Program could be among them.
Former Army Spc. 4 Gerald, from a small town north of Philadelphia, met the demanding standards of the service's "Old Guard," the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, during his time in the military. He said he was one of the sentinels assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and also served in firing parties, casket carrying and flag foldings at funerals and at White House and Pentagon ceremonies.
"It was a high-pressure unit, with all the spit and shine and that," Gerald said. "I just couldn't take it anymore. I figured I'd do my time and then get out." But, he said, "I just didn't adjust to civilian life."
"I was living with my parents, drinking, taking Dilantin [an anticonvulsant]. I started blacking out," he recalled.
When one of the blackouts turned violent, "Mom called the staties on me," Gerald said, adding that he ended up serving 13 years in prison for aggravated assault and firearms possession.
When he got out in early 2020, "I thought, 'This is not the world I left behind.' This pandemic has screwed up everything," he said. He lived in a motel until he ran out of money but insisted that he was never on the street.
Gerald said he hooked up with the Veterans Leadership Program through a friend last November. Through VLP, he recently moved into an apartment with a roommate in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and said he is looking forward to "getting my life back together. I always look to the future."
Former Petty Officer 2nd Class William came to the VLP by a different route, which took him through several states after serving 10 years in the Navy, with deployments aboard the amphibious transport docks La Salle and Nashville, and the amphibious command ship Mount Whitney.
"I had thought about making [the Navy] a career, but life kinda got in the way," William said. He was married with a child while in the service. "They couldn't always deal with that, so I got out. I kinda wish I had stuck it out, but it wasn't in the cards."
He left the Navy in 1996, and then his marriage fell apart.
"I guess you could say I was homeless for probably four years. I wasn't on [the] street all those years, maybe staying here and there with family. But as far as a stable place to live -- nothing."
He said his main problem was "probably alcoholism, maybe PTSD a little bit."
"I ended up on the street, stayed in Norfolk [Virginia] for a while, moved to Maryland with my sister, moved to Florida for a little while, then Louisiana. Then moved to Pittsburgh in 1998," William said. "For a little while then, my Mom took me in, helped me get on my feet. [I] got an apartment on my own two years later." He landed a union job.
Then, his second marriage broke up about two years ago. "I guess you could say I found myself homeless again," William said. Then, he was laid off from his job when COVID hit.
His sister referred him to the VLP. He managed to find an apartment and get assistance from the HUD-VASH program.
"I didn't know those things existed," he said. "So technically, I wasn't homeless." HUD-VASH helped with utilities.
"They've been paying my rent, I think, going on five months now," William said. VLP aides also "dropped off some food a couple of times, boxes of food. They've been really helpful."
"I feel the homeless situation has gotten worse since COVID," he said. "We had the eviction moratorium, but some people fell through the cracks on that.
"I'm fortunate because I have a really compassionate landlord" and the assistance of the Veterans Leadership Program, William said. "I'm really not sure where I would be right now if it wasn't for that. I might be one of those people [out on the street again]. That could very well be my situation."
An Accurate Count
To speed the process, the VA has digitized its Status Query and Response System, or SQUARES, program for getting online information on a veteran's status and eligibility for vouchers and other benefits to the more than 1,200 authorized homeless service organizations nationwide who work with the VA and HUD.
Previously, the organizations had to go through a cumbersome paperwork process to establish the veteran's identity and eligibility for HUD-VASH and other benefits with the DD-214 form, the record of a service member's time in the military and discharge status.
The new system also takes the onus off the veteran for providing verification, said Monica Diaz, executive director of the Veterans Health Administration Homeless Program Office.
"It's a significant change," she said. Homeless veterans often will not have their DD-214 or other required paperwork, or know how to get it. But with the new system, providers can access the information directly, she explained.
"The veteran will not have to be carrying around the paperwork," Diaz said. "That's a big difference" in getting veterans the benefits and services they rate.
SQUARES has already won praise from organizations working with the VA and HUD to assist homeless veterans.
"This has really solved a big problem. This can let us know in minutes [the veteran's status and eligibility]," said Ken Leslie, founder of Veterans Matter, an organization that helps make up the difference when a veteran comes up short for rent or deposit.
Hard Times from New York to LA
"We're probably going to see a huge spike" in the number of homeless veterans when the eviction moratorium ends and unemployment benefits run out, said Laura Stradley, a former Army staff sergeant and executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, New York. "Our major concern is on the flip side of the moratorium."
She said an "odd phenomenon was at play" during the harsh winter months that helped keep homeless veterans off the streets.
Families tend to be more willing to allow relatives dealing with unemployment or mental health issues to stay with them in the winter, but they lose patience as the weather warms, Stradley said.
"We're kind of all bracing for this onslaught on needs that will be present that we may or may not be able to meet. It's going to be, I think, a pretty heavy lift," she said. "If we have an onslaught of people coming in that are in great need -- will we be able to provide that level of care and service to each person that comes in when the time comes? I mean, we'll do everything in our power to make that happen, but it's going to be a challenge."
Stout, the former Marine, has been staying at the Richards House shelter in Rochester, run by the Veterans Outreach Center, since he kicked the drug habit on his own after hitting bottom.
"I thought I was OK, but the drugs kept getting really bad to the point that I was done. That led me to the Richards House," Stout said. He now receives 80% disability pay from the VA and is looking forward to moving into an apartment on his own.
"That place saved my life, man, they really did," he said of the Richards House. The staff made him feel "like I wasn't out there all by myself. It's hard coming out of the service. I felt lost everywhere, like I just didn't connect with anything."
"People didn't understand, of course. How would they understand? Unless you've been in and gone through it, you don't get it," Stout said. "Richards House really helped." He said it made him realize "I'm not in this alone. I can't say enough about the staff there. They saved my life. I love those people."
The plight of the homeless in Rochester is mirrored in Washington, D.C., where even Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell has taken notice of the tent cities that pop up around the District and has pledged to get involved.
Powell said he was stunned last month while driving to work past 30 to 40 tents that sprang up on the sidewalk near Federal Reserve headquarters off Constitution Avenue on the National Mall.
He later mentioned the homeless problem and what it might mean for the country's economic recovery in a "60 Minutes" interview and at an International Monetary Fund panel.
The tent city near the Federal Reserve was gone a few days after Powell took notice, but he said at an April 28 news conference on monetary policy that he planned to meet with the homeless.
"I have met with homeless people many times ... and I think it's always good to talk to people and hear what's going on in their lives," he said. "It's an important thing to engage in, and we bring that understanding into our lives and, frankly, into our work."
Across the country in Los Angeles, there's a federal district judge who goes a step further than Powell by meeting with the homeless at their encampments on the city's "Skid Row" and pressing the city and state to expand affordable housing programs through his rulings on lawsuits brought by advocacy groups.
Khe Sanh Marine Gets on LA's Case
The VA and HUD have been forced to desperate measures in California, where HUD estimates that one in four homeless veterans now resides.
On a visit to the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center in May 2019, then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie watched in amazement as cars pulled into the parking lot on the facility's sprawling grounds to spend the night there with the permission of the hospital.
"It was the saddest sight I have ever seen," Wilkie said a year later in an address to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. "I watched at dusk cars come into that wonderful, wonderful facility, and veterans did not get out of the cars.
"I was told that they all had jobs. They were contributing to the tax base and the prosperity of America's second-largest city, but because of government policy, there was no place for them to afford a decent living," Wilkie said.
The West LA VAMC has since expanded its parking program to allow a tent city for veterans on the grounds. And it provides services aimed at getting them apartments in LA's tight housing market.
In a recent interview, Stephen Peck, president and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Veterans Initiative, said about 40 to 50 veterans are living in tents on the grounds of the West LA VAMC. His group is leading efforts to build permanent housing for 2,100 veterans on the West LA VAMC grounds.
"We're part of the principal development team" for the permanent housing, said Peck, a former Marine lieutenant who served with an artillery unit in Vietnam.
"We started construction last September, [but] we don't know where all the money is coming from [to complete the project]," he added.
"We all expect a surge" in the number of homeless veterans from the pandemic and the end of the rent moratorium, Peck said.
Advocacy groups face an additional problem: Veterans can sometimes be choosy about where they'll agree to stay.
"Veterans don't want to come off the street into congregate living," Peck explained. "In transitional housing programs, there are two or three to a room. They don't want to do that. They're either staying out on the street or taking advantage of additional funding to be put in hotels."
Peck has been aided in his efforts by Kinsey, the former Air Force sergeant, who now works for the U.S. Veterans Initiative after kicking his alcoholism.
"You have to make the decision on what you want to do and stick to it. For me, I had to go cold turkey so I could start receiving some instructions on how to live," Kinsey said. "For me, my step was to stop using, do what those who I trusted told me to do, follow some instructions. Once I did that, I received employment." He said he worked at Kmart and then at a center for at-risk youth before coming to the U.S. Veterans Initiative.
One of his tasks now is to work with incarcerated veterans, he said.
"A lot of veterans are in county jails. A lot of veterans go to jail from homelessness, so we go down there and try to provide them with an opportunity to do something different when they get out of the situation they're in," Kinsey said. "We provide letters for courts. We have alcohol and drug programs if a guy has that issue. Then, we start working on housing goals and employment goals."
Both Kinsey and Peck lauded Judge David O. Carter for holding the city and state to account on addressing the homelessness issue.
"He's a no-nonsense guy," Peck said of Carter, a Vietnam veteran who earned a Bronze Star with combat "V" and a Purple Heart as lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, Ninth Marines, in the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh.
"[Carter] really feels this to his core. What he's doing is acting as the conscience of homeless people in LA, ordering LA to do what it has avoided doing for many years," Peck said.
In a scathing 110-page ruling last month on a lawsuit brought by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, Carter ordered the city and county to house all of the homeless on "Skid Row" in central Los Angeles, believed to be the nation's largest homeless encampment.
"All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis -- that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets," Carter wrote. Los Angeles County quickly filed a notice of appeal on the ruling.
In his ruling, Carter also ordered Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to come back to him with a detailed accounting of how he plans to spend about $1 billion in available funding to address homelessness in the city.
Carter laced his ruling with numerous historical references, citing the Gettysburg Address, in which Abraham Lincoln spoke of the "last full measure of devotion" given by those who died on the battlefield and the "unfinished work" the nation faced in the cause of freedom.
"Virtually every citizen of Los Angeles has borne the impacts of the city and county's continued failure to meaningfully confront the crisis of homelessness," Carter wrote. "The time has come to redress these wrongs and finish another measure of our nation's unfinished work.
"There can be no defense to the indefensible," he added. "For all the declarations of success that we are fed, citizens themselves see the heartbreaking misery of the homeless and the degradation of their city and county.
"Like Abraham Lincoln's call to action in his Gettysburg Address, it is for us 'to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced,' Carter said in the ruling. "Let us pick up that flag, and have the courage of those who fought so long ago, to act so that we can become a better nation and people."
Editor's Note: Richard Sisk was in the same Marine 1967 training class with David O. Carter at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.