How to Help End Veteran Homelessness

GA, Senior Vietnam vet begging for money
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Homelessness is visible in most U.S. cities and towns. Signs with messages such as "Iraq War Vet: Anything you give helps." are not uncommon sights on the on-ramps, intersections, and sidewalks of this nation. Often, stably-housed people become overwhelmed when faced with people in need of housing and other support. The hopeful news is that there are actions you can take each and every day to help people experiencing homelessness and to end veteran homelessness. 

First, we'll explain what we mean by "homelessness." Then, we'll identify ten specific actions, ranging from personal relationships to public advocacy that you can take to reduce harm and end veteran homelessness in the U.S. 

What Is Homelessness?

 When most people hear the word homelessness, they think of a person sleeping on the street. These people are experiencing homelessness, but they represent only 32% of the 549,928 people identified by the 2016 national count of people experiencing homelessness.

While federal agencies each have slightly different definitions of what they consider "homelessness," one simple way to think of the definition of homelessness is: anyone who doesn't have stable housing that's considered an adequate shelter for a human. This includes people who sleep on the street, in an emergency shelter, in transitional housing facilities, in a tent, and in a car because they have no other adequate place to sleep. In this article, we discuss "people who experience homelessness" or "unhoused people," not "homeless people." People shouldn't be defined by their current housing crisis—they once had a home and, with your help, they will hopefully have one again in the future. 

Here's how you can help. 

At the Individual Level

Young adult begging on the streets of Europe
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Stay Connected to Veterans and Those Currently in the Military

One thing that most people who sleep outside have in common is that they're disconnected from their families and communities of origin. Long deployments, moving away to join the military, and the trauma many soldiers experience during war make these breaks with family and community even more likely. Staying connected with vets in your life during and after their service can create the relationships that will keep them from losing stable housing in the first place. You can help them get jobs upon returning, let them stay with you if they fall on hard times, and be on the lookout for signs of trauma that they may need support in getting treatment for. 

Talk to Unhoused Vets and Share Resources 

Talking to unhoused people can greatly reduce their social isolation. Through those conversations, you're likely to better understand their individual character and the events that led them to where they are. You might realize you have had a resource that can help the person live more safely or even exit homelessness. For example: They may have been a machinist in the military but have had a hard time finding employment because they also have a criminal record. If you or a family member owns a machine shop and are willing to give them a shot at employment, that one opportunity could drastically stabilize their finances and get them back into stable housing. 

Give Directly to Unhoused Vets

People who don't have a stable place to live need cash and other goods to survive. Cash may be used to pay for a sit-down meal, allowing them to stay out of the rain all afternoon. They may use cash to keep a cell phone connected, pool their money with friends for a hotel for the night, or buy a monthly gym membership to shower, rest, and stay fit. These small purchases can be lifelines for unhoused people; they may reduce the amount of isolation and physical harm a person experiences from being unsheltered, and therefore the amount of time they'll be spending on the street or in shelters. If you’re worried about where the cash will go, offer to pay the money directly to the intended cost: go directly to the hotel and pay for a night, go with the person to the phone store and pay their bill, or go to the local restaurant they frequent and pre-pay for a couple of meals. 

At the Local Level

Poverty Persists Despite Strong Economy
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Champion local legislation that provides Housing First, not citations 

Housing First is an approach to homelessness that provides permanent subsidized housing to chronically unhoused people as the first step in addressing complex problems. Research shows that problems that contribute to long-term street sleeping such as mental health problems, addiction, and physical disabilities can’t be resolved until a person has a place to call home. Arresting people for crimes associated with street sleeping such as public urination and loitering make the problem even worse—it extends the time a person will live on the street, prevents them from stable employment, traumatizes them, and costs taxpayers millions of dollars more than a subsidized apartment would. 

Support Your Local VSO Office 

Many towns and cities have a Veterans Service Officer as part of their town governance. This office serves as a point of access for veterans to get connected with local and federal support programs. It helps veterans navigate the bureaucratic hurdles they may face in trying to access Veterans benefits. Pay attention to your town or country budget and advocate for this office to be well-funded and staffed. 

Advocate for or fundraise Emergency Housing Funds

Research overwhelmingly shows that helping someone keep housing is much more cost effective than trying to get someone re-housed after they’ve lost housing. You can help by pooling your own friends and family’s resources to help a vet that is at risk of losing housing keep that housing by paying their rent or other costs for a month. If you can't do that personally, advocate for local community funding called Emergency Housing funds. This might be distributed through a local nonprofit, the Veterans Service Office, or a place of worship.  

At the Federal Level

Photo of US Capitol Building
US Capitol Building. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Advocate for VA Services 

Veterans Association (VA) Medican Centers and other VA services are designed to be full-service resources for U.S. Veterans. When these services are fully-funded and functioning effectively they provide quality healthcare and interconnected resources such as job training and emergency housing assistance that enables vets to stay healthy and active in their communities. Each year, the VA budget is voted on by Congress. You can follow this vote each year in the news and consistently let your congressional representatives know how important adequate funding and operation is to you. If they don't support this funding at the levels you think are adequate, organize with your neighbors to vote in someone who does. 

Join a Nationwide Campaign to End Homelessness

There are a number of organizations that work not just to manage homelessness, but to end it. The Department of Veterans Affairs launched an initiative in 2009 to end Veterans Homelessness. However, as long as homelessness is a ubiquitous part of life in the U.S., vets will continue to find themselves among those without housing. Organizations such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Coalition for the Homeless  lobby officials to implement concrete measures to reduce and end homelessness, produce research about the high cost of homelessness to taxpayers, and train regular people like you to become advocates for housing all people within your community. 

Grover Wehman-Brown is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She received a PhD in Communication from the University of North Carolina.