The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter, or in transitional housing or as in a state of exiting an institution (e.g., a prison, hospital, or mental health facility). In the United States, an estimated of 578,424 people (of which, approximately 37,800 are veterans) experience homelessness on any given night (Henry et al. 2014). There is general consensus in scholarly literature that homelessness in developed nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, is primarily the result of a combination of micro and macro systemic factors.
At the macro level, factors such as poverty, shortage of affordable housing, especially in urban areas, changes in social policy, reductions in public housing, and income inequality impact homelessness. At the micro level, individual vulnerabilities can include low income, changes in family composition or relationship, military veteran status, debt, lack of social support, alcohol abuse, lack of education, and mental and physical health issues. Anderson et al. (2003) conclude that due to the complexity of homelessness, it is understood that these factors are not discrete or isolated factors; rather, they are interconnected, resulting in multiple pathways in and out of homelessness. Subsequently, a diverse set of interventions often is needed to prevent individuals from falling into homelessness (Anderson 2003).
More attention is being given to women veterans experiencing homelessness because of their quickly increasing numbers. From 2016 to 2017, the number of homeless women veterans increased by 7 percent, compared with 1 percent for their male counterparts. According to the VA-funded National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, the number of women identified by the program as homeless, or who accessed VA programs to end homelessness tripled to 36,443 in a five-year period ending in 2015. That figure, according to the center, is projected to rise by about 9 percent to nearly 40,000 by 2025. Approximately 25% of female and 1% of male veterans report having experienced military sexual trauma (MST) during their military service. MST is related to adverse outcomes following separation from the military, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depressive disorders, substance use disorders, and higher rates of co-occurrence among these diagnoses.
A study published by Mota et al. (2016) found that the association between MST and post deployment homelessness was stronger among male than female veterans, an important issue that requires more attention. The authors note that this finding underscores “the need to study sex-specific pathways to homelessness as well as mechanisms underlying this sex difference in military veterans” (Mota et al. 2016). There is currently an underrepresentation of MST research in male veterans, and this study underscores the importance of effective and targeted approaches to reduce the stigma related to reporting MST for male veterans and to encourage help seeking behaviors for MST-related mental health problems in this population. Most studies on MST focus on the most recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. MST is relatively understudied among veterans of earlier conflicts. It is important to recognize that less than 25% of veterans identify the VHA as their primary source of health care (Mota et al. 2016) This leaves an incredible portion of the population likely being affected by MST and homelessness that we are not capturing in current data and analysis. It is important for research to reach military veteran populations outside of VHA in order to evaluate and possibly enhance screening, prevention, and treatment efforts for MST in veterans.
Homelessness and veterans: the stats
Each year, an annual effort led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)called the Point-in-Time (PIT) Countis administered in order to estimate the number of Americans, including veterans, without safe, stable housing. It is one of the tools used to assess progress each year toward VA’s priority goal of ending homelessness among veterans. According to the 2018 PIT Countand reported by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a single night in January 2018, just over 37,800 veterans were experiencing homelessness. On the same night, just over 23,300 of the veterans counted were unsheltered or living on the street. Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 5.4 percent decrease in the estimated number of homeless veterans nationwide. And the estimated number of veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States has declined by nearly 50 percent since 2010 (NCHV.org).
Approximately 12,700 veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND) were homeless in 2010 (2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report). The number of young homeless veterans is increasing, but only constitutes 8.8% of the overall homeless veteran population (NCHV.org) The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs(VA) states that the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 9% being female. The majority are single; live in urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders.
According to NCHV, about 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans. Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the veteran population respectively. Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50. Conversely, only 5% of all veterans are between the ages of 18 and 30, and less than 23% are between 31 and 50. According to NCHV, America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone. About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing (NCHV.org)
Kiersten Downs, PhD, Research Director and Program Lead for ScoutInsight, ScoutComms
Dr. Downs is an Air Force Veteran and Applied Anthropologist with over a decade of experience in research and managing projects that focus on Veteran policy, transition and reintegration, suicide prevention, military sexual trauma, and employment needs.
Anderson, I. (2003). Synthesizing homelessness research: Trends, lessons and prospects. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 13(2), 197–205. https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.721
Barile, John P., Anna Smith Pruitt, and Josie L. Parker. 2018. “A Latent Class Analysis of Self‐identified Reasons for Experiencing Homelessness: Opportunities for Prevention.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 28 (2): 94–107. doi:10.1002/casp.2343.
Henry, M., Cortes, A., Shivji, A., Buck, K., Khadduri, K., & Culhane, D. P. (2014). The 2014 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 1 point in time counts. Retrieved 9 Jan. 2018 from:https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2014‐AHAR‐Part1.pdf
Mota, Natalie, Robert H. Pietrzak, and Jitender Sareen. 2016. “Preventing Veteran Homelessness by Reducing Military Sexual Trauma: Ensuring a Welcome Home.” JAMA Psychiatry 73 (6): 551. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=115883062&site=eds-live.
Department of Veterans Affairs: Homeless Veterans https://www.va.gov/HOMELESS/pit_count.asp
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans: Statistics http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics/
2018 Annual Homeless Report to Congress