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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Prioritizing Homeless Veterans: Are We Giving Up on Ending All Homelessness?

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Fourteen years ago, when the goal to actually end homelessness was proposed by a national homeless group, for most people involved in addressing this human tragedy in America, the idea of zero homelessness seemed lofty. Back in 2000, there were 700,000 people who were homeless in America.

That lofty goal, however, prompted a powerful movement to redesign how this country approached housing its homeless neighbors.

Two years later, in 2002, the federal government decided they would challenge every city and jurisdiction in the country to create a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness. Note the insertion of "chronic" in their goal. Chronic homelessness was a smaller subset of the general homeless population that included people who had been homeless for a long time and who had some sort of chronic illness.

Did federal leaders, even back then, realize that housing the entire homeless population might be too lofty?

Nevertheless, stakeholders within communities that traditionally did not participate in addressing homelessness joined this exciting new effort. Business, faith, political, and community leaders joined hands to commit to ending chronic homelessness in their jurisdictions within a decade.

As the ten-year mark approached, however, it was clear zero chronic homelessness would not be met. On a positive note, however, the numbers were going down. This was the first downward trend since homelessness became a national issue in the 1980s. But the number was not zero.

In 2010, the federal government had to reboot their national homeless strategy. An ambitious, and more focused effort was proposed--end veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness within five years (2015). And end family homelessness within ten years (2020).

We are now 18 months away from the end of 2015, and a "new" federal push is being promoted around the country.

The First Lady of the United States is challenging mayors across the country to join this effort to house those men and women who fought for our country and are now fighting to get off our streets.

Critics, however, see this as a diversion from the President's handling of the Veterans Administration scandal. But who can argue with such an honorable effort to house such deserving citizens?

Some communities are focusing their efforts on an even smaller population - chronic homeless veterans. Efforts inSalt Lake City, Utah and Phoenix, Arizona to end chronic homeless veterans have been successful.

If you look at the big picture, however, there is a trend within the changing approaches to addressing American homelessness in the past 14 years.

The goal line has shifted: from ending homelessness, to ending chronic homelessness, to ending veteran homelessness.

The experts think ending veteran homelessness, however, is obtainable. In 2013, the agency I lead permanently housed 1,000 chronic homeless veterans in Southern and Central California. We were moving in 20 veterans into apartments each week.

So, yes, such an effort is feasible.

But what about the other non-veteran-homeless persons? What about those homeless veterans who do not qualify for VA benefits? And what about everyone else who are not veterans?

In 2013, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department announced that the total homeless population in America was 610,042. They said it was a four percent drop from the year before.

But if you compare this number with the 700,000 in 2000, the number of homeless in America was reduced by 90,000 people in a span of 13 years. At this rate, we would end homelessness in 88 years.

I wonder if such dismal projections, and the fact that this country is narrowing its goals to a smaller segment of the entire homeless population, means that this country has given up on ending homelessness for all Americans?

Let's hope not.