In 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) significantly upped their commitments to ending veteran homelessness via project-based VASH vouchers (VASH stands for Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). Awards totaling $12 million will fund nearly 1,730 project-based vouchers aimed at leveraging existing housing units and facilitating the funding of new construction of permanent supportive housing communities for homeless veterans. Yet these dollars still represent a fraction of all VASH funding.
From a policy perspective, project-based vouchers address particular issues that challenge chronically homeless veterans, including a dearth of affordable housing, isolation, and the inaccessibility of intensive support services. To effectively end veteran homelessness, we need an even greater percentage of the $75 million targeted for VASH in HUD’s upcoming budget to be allocated toward project-based vouchers.
The HUD-VASH program combines HUD’s Sec. 8 housing choice rental assistance vouchers, which are administered by a local public housing authority, with VA’s case management and clinical services, which are provided through either a local VA medical center or a community-based outpatient clinic. Since 2008, VASH has been instrumental in reducing homelessness among veterans, with more than 59,000 vouchers awarded and serving more than 74,000 veterans. In January 2014, thousands of cities and counties across the country reported a 33 percent decline in homeless veterans, roughly 25,000 people, since 2010.
While these numbers are significant, VASH can be further leveraged to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing for veterans. To date, the majority of VASH has been awarded as a tenant-based subsidy in the private rental market. For many chronically homeless veterans with mental and physical challenges as well as addiction issues, this model often does not work. Studies have established that permanent supportive housing with on-site services, as well as patient and supportive landlords and neighbors, significantly improves housing stability and decreases the use (and public costs) of services such as emergency shelters and hospital care.
When project-based VASH leverages affordable housing programs to increase the supply of housing for homeless veterans, it also locks in affordability of these units for decades. Combined with low income housing tax credits, soft loan sources from public agencies, and/or grant funds from foundations and corporations like Citi Community Development, these units will have long-term affordability restrictions.
Increasing the supply of veterans’ permanent supportive housing is especially imperative in expensive rental markets in states like New York and California, where VASH rent caps limit options for homeless veterans in the private rental market. A homeless veteran with a tenant-based VASH voucher is challenged to find housing in Long Island, where VASH fair market-rate rent caps for one-bedroom and two-bedroom units are $175 to $350 below average monthly market rents, and the average occupancy for market-rate projects is 97 percent. A successful alternative is Liberty Village in North Amityville, a 60-unit supportive housing development opened by Concern for Independent Living, which received project-based VASH vouchers and other project-based rent subsidies. Located on the grounds of the former Armed Forces Reserve Center, this affordable housing project includes on-site services and an adjacent Community Resource Center that houses area homeless agencies, a job training program, and a distribution center for donations.
In addition to affordable rents and access to social services, permanent supportive housing for veterans and their families offers another benefit not found in private rental apartments: the unique element of community. Through shared experiences, veterans feel comfortable living with other veterans and may be experiencing similar difficulties returning to civilian life. Independence is created through interdependence, which is facilitated through community design and social programs that create mutual awareness and informal social support.
“Anyone with a home has neighbors,” said Sgt. Angel Romero, a resident at Liberty Village. “Here I’m with my brothers and sisters.”
At Victory Gardens, a 74-unit development at Newington VA Medical Campus in Connecticut, a case manager said, “People look out for each other, especially in the permanent supportive housing building. A common thread is that ‘I’m a vet, you’re a vet,’ and it pulls residents out despite their inclination to isolate.”
In order to substantially end homelessness among veterans by 2015, we need to leverage more project-based VASH to build more supportive housing developments for veterans. While construction takes time, new developments are the foundation of a long-term solution. Completed developments such as Liberty Village and Victory Gardens are demonstrating that permanent supporting housing is an invaluable resource for healing and bringing hope to the men and women who served our country.
Debbie Burkart is national vice president of supportive housing at National Equity Fund and director of LISC’s Bring Them Homes initiative.