Veteran homelessness sharply declines
A housing first success? Some experts and ministries say there’s more to the story
When Willie Weaver set out from Hattiesburg, Miss., he wasn’t sure his truck would make it the 420 miles to Nashville. The 1996, wine-colored Ford F-150 had been his home for the past year and a half. Twenty-four years of marriage ended suddenly when Weaver lost his wife to COVID-19 in 2020. Grief sent him into a tailspin. He gave his home to his grown children and left. “I couldn’t take the memories buried there,” he said.
Weaver lived in the run-down truck until the Department of Veterans Affairs connected him with a transitional housing program called Matthew 25. The Christian nonprofit works with veterans and other homeless men to restore their lives.
Weaver, 61, served in the Army as a paratrooper from 1979 to 1982. He was one of an estimated 33,136 veterans experiencing homelessness across the United States. Unlike most homeless populations, the number of homeless veterans fell sharply over the past two years. Preliminary results of a 2022 point-in-time count showed veterans’ homelessness declined by 11 percent from 37,252 in 2020—the most significant drop in five years—according to Veterans Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The 2022 Point-in-Time count is the first substantially complete count since the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams of volunteers scour the streets and search for encampments in their cities to count individuals. Volunteers can’t record people staying on friends’ couches or sleeping in their cars like Weaver.
The tally shows a significant decline, and many experts and agencies claim the drop is a success for an approach called “housing first.” It quickly gets homeless individuals into housing without requiring things like sober living or class attendance. But some experts and ministries fighting homelessness in their neighborhoods say there’s more to the story.
Weaver’s truck broke down in the parking lot of Matthew 25. When he arrived at the ministry, his first thoughts were of relief: “My first impressions were, ‘Wow! I got a place to lay my head out of the cold.’” The program has space for 50 men in its transitional housing program, and Matthew 25 reserves about 40 of those beds for veterans.
Executive Director Jim Ward says veterans become homeless for several reasons, not just trauma from combat experience. About 80 percent of his clients are struggling with addiction, and many live with mental health issues, sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder. Not all of it is military-related. Family structure also plays a role. He says unmarried veterans are almost two times more likely to experience homelessness. “You can boil it down to poverty, a lack of a good support network, and substance abuse,” Ward said. For others, a crisis sent them into a tailspin. Minority groups are disproportionately represented at Matthew 25 and in homeless communities across the country. At his organization, about 50 percent of the men are black.
Veterans’ homelessness has fallen by 55 percent since 2010. Ann Oliva, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, attributes the decline to a combination of concentrated resources for a small demographic, the close relationship between the federal agencies that manage a veteran’s exit from the military, and the government’s housing first approach.
Oliva worked in the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and the beginning of the Trump administration to help design the current version of the HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. The program pairs a housing choice voucher with VA case management and clinical services through their medical centers. The housing first program prioritizes quickly getting veterans into low-barrier housing and then providing the services they need to stay housed.
Oliva argued the decline in veteran homelessness is a national “proof point” for the housing first approach with the right resources and leadership. “It’s about scale. And it’s about creating the partnerships that we need that we know work in the veterans’ sphere,” she said, “It’s not impossible to do that with other systems. It’s just harder to do that with other systems.”
But Stephen Eide, a homelessness expert with the Manhattan Institute, isn’t so sure the decline in veteran homelessness is such a clear-cut housing first success story. “There is a large debate to be had about housing first—is housing the solution to homelessness?” said Eide. “But introducing this experience with veteran’s homeless programs into that debate … tends to cloud more than clarify it.”
Eide points to the work of Brendan O’Flaherty, a leading homelessness researcher often cited by advocates. His recent study indicated that a decline in the veteran population of the age at greatest risk of homelessness played a more prominent role than government policy, Eide wrote. And lower rates of homelessness in one cohort aren’t the same as a decline in homelessness, he argued: “Just as many factors cause homelessness, many factors may also be at work in reducing it, such as an improving economy or demographic changes.”
For instance, in San Francisco, the number of homeless fentanyl addicts isn’t declining, and housing first methods aren’t making a significant dent in the problem, Eide pointed out.
Matthew 25 prioritizes getting veterans into permanent housing, but it doesn’t start there. The VA refers the veterans to the organization. They complete an intake process and decide whether they want to commit to the program. During the interview, some men say they don’t want to participate in a regular program. “Unfortunately, I’d say, well, then we’re not necessarily the place for you because we’re more than a bed and three meals,” said Ward. “Our goal is to get you here and get you stable and into permanent housing.”
Men in the transitional housing program typically stay three to six months, sometimes longer. The organization gets men struggling with addiction into recovery. Then, they help the men find employment. The men attend five meetings a week between individual counseling sessions, group therapy sessions, and meetings with their case managers.
Participants can’t move into new housing and continue old habits. Matthew 25 is a sober-living environment, and the men are drug-tested randomly. The men help with chores and are expected to save money. “The guys really pitch in to form a community here. That’s important to us, and it’s important to the guys,” said Ward. Men can attend Bible study on Wednesday nights and a worship and communion service on Monday nights. About 75 percent of the men attend. They encourage those struggling with addiction to enroll in a Christian-based, 12-step program.
After 60 days, the men contribute a small fee if they can.“It’s almost a way of just saying, invest in yourself. Invest in the program,” Ward said.
The second floor of the building houses the progressive housing program, an income-based program aimed at men who are on their way to total independence but still need the accountability and support of a case manager. The men rent a low-cost apartment from Matthew 25, develop a rental history, and pay off eviction fees. They maintain sober living and work on budgeting and saving.
“For us, achieving some stability is really helpful in the long term because we can just put you in housing tomorrow, but if we haven’t addressed your employment issues, if we haven’t addressed your substance abuse issues, we’re not going to be successful,” said Ward.
Weaver’s truck is still sitting in the Matthew 25 parking lot. He rode a bike to work for a while, but now he walks because of health issues. He’s saving up to get his burgundy Ford fixed. A professionally trained chef, Weaver works part-time at Matthew 25, making breakfast and lunch two days a week for the men and three meals a day on weekends.
“Some weekends, I make them a barbecue meatloaf, or I will make a lot of pasta for them. I cook with a lot of cheese,” he said. “I want to give back to my fellow men, give them a five-star meal because I know how it is … what types of food that we eat … when we’re out there on the streets. I tell them, you’re not here alone.”
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