What is 47% of Unknown?

In August of this year, federal agencies including the VA and HUD announced that veteran homelessness has been reduced by 47% since 2010 and now we only have 40,000 homeless veterans in the country. However, this reported reduction in based on general Point-in-Time (PIT) counts of homeless people (not specifically veterans) that are conducted each year. These PIT counts are conducted by thousands of communities around the country and compiled together for a national count of homeless people. There are several problems with these PIT counts.

First of all, there is not one standard methodology that is used. For example, some communities count homeless people on a few blocks and extrapolate that information to estimate a total number. Other communities try to canvas their entire community for a total count. Some communities hire “fake” homeless people and see if they get counted and to adjust their counts for missing bias depending on how many hired people they missed.

Second, it’s been shown in several studies that it can be hard to identify veterans among homeless people. Veterans don’t always identify themselves as veterans and different communities have different ways of identifying veterans in their PIT counts.

So while I applaud the extraordinary amount of funds (which is in the billions of dollars) and federal efforts that have been dedicated to addressing homelessness among veterans, we lack the metrics to carefully evaluate how we are doing on this front. Some critics have also pointed out that more needs to be done; for example, the New York Times Editorial Board wrote (Aug. 6, 2016, page A20) that it’s a “covenant that the government always seems to be making, neglecting, forgetting, and rediscovering” with our homeless veterans. Another important point is that housing veterans is one thing, but keeping them housed is another. Services to reduce substance abuse, increase social integration, and promote employment and money management are all important aspects of staying housed. But we rarely hear numbers about how many are cycling through housing and homelessness.

This year, the Obama Administration has announced another campaign called the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homeless, which is focused on enlisting the help of local government and organizations. I remain optimistic, although we’ll have to wait to see what happens with this campaign. To really gauge the success of these efforts, I continue to think we need to develop well-thought out, standardized and unbiased metrics to counting homeless veterans, which in of itself is a difficult task, while we tackle the larger task of ending veteran homelessness.