This City Is About to End Homelessness Among Its Veterans — For Good

This City Is About to End Homelessness Among Its Veterans — For Good

For much of the past year, the city of Tucson, Arizona, has struggled to figure out how to handle its homeless population. From battles over sleeping pods on sidewalks to clearing out parks filled with dozens of people who can't find shelter for the night, the city has been scrambling to find a way to deal with its most desperate members. Often, that agenda has involved effectively criminalizing the kinds of activities homeless people need to engage in to survive.

But in September, a ray of light appeared. Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild announced that by year's end, for least one important subset of the homeless population, there would be an end in sight.

By the end of 2015, the city predicts there will be no more homeless veterans in Tucson, thanks to a policy that could also help the overall homeless population, should the city devote enough resources to its implementation: permanent housing.

How it happened: In the summer of 2013, Tucson determined that no veteran within its borders would live on the streets. Since then, it has coordinated with various local organizations to provide about 1,200 homeless veterans with permanent housing, reports the Arizona Daily Star.

There are still over 400 homeless veterans scattered about the city, but Rothschild predicts they'll all be housed by the end of the year.

"If we work diligently over the next four months, we're on pace to make our goal," Rothschild said, according to the Star. "Based on our experience from the last 27 to 28 months and given the additional focus, we should be there."

Assuming the entire homeless veteran population of the city is housed by year's end, that would mean the city would have found permanent refuge for over 1,600 people within two and a half years. The key was pooling together resources from federal and local sources, sending caseworkers out in the field to ascertain the exact needs of homeless veterans across the city and then matching them with special subsidies and housing.   

It's bigger than one town: Tucson will only be the latest in a number of cities that have successfully eliminated homelessness among their veterans. At the beginning of the year, New Orleans became the first city in the nation to do so; in June, Houston announced it had housed all the homeless veterans in the city — well over 3,000.

For years now, the federal government has been offering states and local communities funding partnerships to help them embrace housing-first policies to solve their problems with homelessness. It's a policy that began under George W. Bush, and it's the reason that homelessness has steadily declined for years — even through the worst recession since the Great Depression. 

Housing-first policies hold that the most cost-effective way to manage homelessness is to assume supportive housing is a precondition for homeless people — who are often suffering from severe physical and mental health problems — being able to regain their footing and address the deeper problems that plunged them into destitution in the first place. 

Federal initiatives like the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, announced by first lady Michelle Obama in 2014 and coordinated by various branches of federal government, have tried to build energy and infrastructure for housing-first policies in cities across the country.

The focus on veterans has been clever: In the United States, veterans are often revered for their military service, and yet they're significantly more likely than the general population to be homeless. By focusing on a manageable subset of the homeless population whose suffering seems particularly appalling to the general public, a significant percentage of cities' homeless populations can be taken off the streets using a policy that more conservative members of the public might otherwise deem an undeserved giveaway. In the process, cities are developing the organizational networks that will serve the entire homeless population and learning that housing the homeless is in fact cheap, effective and humane. And cultural opinion will likely shift in favor of housing-first as they witness the success of veterans' programs.

That's a promising prospect. But in the meantime, most of the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States who aren't veterans will be out of luck. It remains to be seen when the criterion for deserving a place to live is not whether you're a veteran but whether you're human.