WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is investing more than $3 billion in nationwide efforts to reduce homelessness, with a focus on helping military veterans get and stay in stable housing.
The centerpiece of the effort is $3.1 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Continuum of Care” program, the single biggest infusion of funds into the program that supports state, tribal and local government efforts to tackle homelessness. Other components include grants to fund legal services and job training for veterans, and “boot camps” designed to help VA medical centers and public housing agencies get veterans into housing more quickly.
“It’s pretty exciting stuff,” said Gavin Cooley, one of three former city officials spearheading an effort to tackle homelessness in Spokane. “The entitlement programs, to the extent they’re beefed up and they’re coupled with effective Continuum of Care and community leadership, that’s the way to do it. That’s how it gets down to the local level where it’s needed.”
The Northwest Justice Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves the entire state of Washington, is one of 79 organizations that will split a total of $11.5 million in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ first-ever grant program to fund legal assistance for veterans. Chelsea Hicks, managing attorney of the organization’s King County Veterans Program, said the grant – along with $30,000 in matching funds from King County – will let them add another attorney to their team.
“This isn’t a huge amount of money, but we are going to use it to expand the work that we can do,” she said. “We are more broadly looking at expanding our veterans work, and this is, frankly, a small piece of it.”
While Hicks said the program she leads mainly serves veterans in the Puget Sound area, she emphasized that the Northwest Justice Project provides other services available to veterans across the state, including a legal advice hotline and units dedicated to preventing evictions and foreclosures.
In a call with reporters, White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden said advocates working to end homelessness for all Americans can learn from the VA’s recent efforts, which have continued to make progress even as overall homelessness has increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Homelessness is a challenge we face as a nation, but most importantly, it is a solvable one,” she said. “We know this because of the incredible work that has been done over the last decade to dramatically reduce the number of homeless veterans by more than 55% since 2010.”
Over that same period, the total number of unhoused people fell by just 8.5%, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The overall homeless population rose by nearly 6% from 2016 to 2022, while the number of homeless veterans continued to decline during that time.
In the same call last week announcing the measures, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said ending veteran homelessness “has been and continues to be” a top priority of President Joe Biden. The VA exceeded its goal of housing 38,000 veterans in 2022 and says it is on track to exceed that same target again in 2023.
“I can assure you that we won’t rest until every veteran has a safe, stable place to call home in this country that they swore an oath to defend,” McDonough said.
Spencer Bell, a policy analyst at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, hailed the new funding but cautioned that it shouldn’t give Congress license to cut other funding to reduce homelessness, including among those who served in the military but don’t receive veteran’s benefits because of an other-than-honorable discharge.
“We can’t thank the administration enough for taking the programs authorized by Congress and utilizing them to their utmost on behalf of veterans,” he said. “We hope that Congress and the administration will work in a bipartisan manner to keep these programs funded and available for veterans nationwide and use it as a stepping stone for the general population.”
In addition to the $3.1 billion in Continuum of Care funding and $11.5 million for veterans’ legal help, the Department of Labor will award more than $58 million in grants to help veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness get back into the labor force.
The “boot camp” program will be run jointly by the VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development, with the goal of making an existing supportive housing program known as HUD-VASH more efficient. That program provides vouchers to help pay rent and also offers case management and other support.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has not announced how much funding each local Continuum of Care will get. Cooley said he hoped Spokane would receive enough money to establish the kind of triage center that has made Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s rare success stories in reducing homelessness.