Advocates fear growing backlash against aid for homeless veterans

by Vern Evans

Housing advocates aren’t just worried about the rising number of veterans experiencing homelessness in recent years. They’re also concerned about growing apathy and anger towards the problem.

“It’s not just about losing momentum. Right now, it feels like the tide is heading in the opposite direction,” said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which is holding its annual conference in Washington this week.

“We’re just seeing so much more opposition to solutions, so many more challenges to finding ways to help people who are struggling.”

This year’s gathering of hundreds of community and veterans activists includes the group’s typical updates on new federal program rules, best practices for civic organizations and networking opportunities to share ideas on how to house more veterans.

But organizers have also included an emphasis in their sessions on ways to better share the stories and struggles of homeless veterans in the wake of what they see as rising opposition to their outreach efforts.

Monet said a growing number of municipalities in recent years have increased criminal penalties for homeless individuals while reducing funding support programs, a situation that complicates an already difficult financial situation for the estimated 36,000 veterans without stable housing on any given night in America.

Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, where an Oregon town’s officials approved fines and jail time for people for sleeping outside in public areas as part of an effort to manage homeless encampments in the city.

Advocates called the move unconstitutional. A decision from the high court is expected in coming months.

But Monet said she does not expect the Grants Pass case to be the last high profile conflict of its kind. She said a growing number of groups are sparring with civic leaders over those types of penalties, and an increasingly negative tone towards potential solutions.

“We’re already seeing an unrelenting housing affordability crisis, and now we’re seeing so many cities choosing unproductive responses to homelessness that makes the situation worse,” she said.

Advocates have been lobbying for more federal support for veterans housing programs for the last year, since a pandemic assistance program which provided support services for rent costs and medical travel expenses expired in May 2023.

But persuading leaders to invest in those programs will require public support for the effort.

“Every single one of us has a role to play in shaping and advancing narratives about homelessness, housing security and housing writ large, whether it’s building power so that people can vote, or for specific solutions around housing first and veterans issues,” Marisol Bello, executive director at the Housing Narrative Lab, told attendees at their opening session Wednesday.

Bello said that includes educating officials on the costs of ignoring homeless problems and the long-term benefits of engaging in community solutions.

Specific sessions this week also focused on highlighting housing challenges among elderly veterans, an underreported issue that is growing as the veterans population continues to age.

Monet said she remains optimistic about the ability for communities to continue to aid homeless veterans, but acknowledged that some of the public goodwill of recent years on the issue appears to have disappeared.

When President Barack Obama in 2010 first announced plans to end veterans homelessness across America, the ambitious goal was followed by years of federal and local focus on the issue, reducing the number of former personnel without stable housing by half in eight years.

But those gains have been more modest in recent years. According to federal estimates, the number of homeless veterans dropped only about 5% from 2018 to 2023, and actually increased by several thousand individuals from 2022 to 2023.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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