'Huge Spike' in Veteran Homelessness Expected During Pandemic, Advocates Say

Abbie Bennett
April 28, 2020 - 6:04 am

Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless on any given night in America, and more than 1.4 million were at risk of becoming homeless before the pandemic struck.

Now, advocates say there could be a spike in the number of homeless veterans, a population at elevated risk for the virus. 

Earlier in the pandemic, work to shelter veterans in permanent housing ground to a halt when they needed it most. 

Veterans who had housing vouchers from the government but hadn't used them to rent homes before the pandemic took hold were unable to find housing, according to Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV). 

Now, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have signed off on providing $200 million in emergency funds to help house homeless veterans in hotels and pay for testing for those who fall ill. 

But while those veterans may have temporary shelter during the coronavirus crisis, they're still homeless, Monet said. 

"Without permanent housing, we expect to see a huge spike in veterans who may not have access to shelter," she said. 

'Nowhere to go to keep safe'

Putting veterans in hotels and motels during the pandemic could help prevent infection, Monet said, since homeless veterans often are particularly at risk for the virus because of underlying health conditions, lack of access to hygiene products and running water and few safe places to quarantine or isolate themselves. 

"They have nowhere to go to keep safe," Monet said. "They have no way of keeping themselves clean, or washing their hands as needed." 

Not only are their resources limited -- shelters across the country are shuttering. 

And shelters may not be the safest places, Monet said. 

"It's close quarters," she said. "Lots of bunk beds. It's not the best approach when people should be social distancing."

Those shelters or any close confinement could compromise veterans at higher risk for the virus. 

But there is "a little glimmer of hope," Monet said of the $200 million in emergency cash. 

Putting homeless vets up in hotels and motels is expensive, though, and Monet said she worries now how quickly that fund could dry up. 

"We're putting together a request for the next (federal stimulus) package, asking for more funding for VA programs," she said.

It's not just the funding itself that is a problem. In some cases, such as the federal housing voucher program, a lack of staff and vouchers sitting unused means veterans could be eligible for help, but not be able to use it. 

And with the pandemic causing widespread lockdowns, veterans with vouchers in hand are having trouble using them to rent permanent homes. 

"People are struggling across the board," Monet said. "But think about that the fact that you have available resources that could help thousands of veterans and it's not getting to them, or they can't use it once they do have it." 

Wendy McClinton is an Army veteran who was once homeless with three small children. Now, she's CEO of  Black Veterans for Social Justice, a New York City-based group working to help veterans and their families who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, food insecure, out of work and more. 

McClinton is running four shelters and four hotels being used as shelters in the city. 

For about a month, she's been operating one shelter specifically focused on helping COVID-19 patients -- veteran and non-veteran alike -- with a team of medical staff. 

Monet and other homeless veteran advocates are also worried about the safety of shelter staff during the pandemic -- largely lacking personal protective equipment because of nationwide shortages. 

"A lot of shelters are sending staff to buy that one gallon of bleach per day you're allowed in a lot of places," she said. "So they're competing with the general public for resources. When you're running a shelter with 40 people, what is one gallon of bleach going to get you?"

McClinton said she's had members of her staff fall ill, and has had one death. 

"We count ourselves very fortunate," she said. "But that doesn't mean people aren't scared. We're just determined to help as much as we can." 

Isolation

Helping veterans access shelter and distance themselves to prevent spreading the virus has been key, Monet said. But that can also breed loneliness, which is its own pandemic. 

"For some veterans, that's a real struggle -- the isolation," she said. "There's so much camaraderie in that community that is so key and a lot of veterans have struggled." 

And helping those veterans has also been a struggle -- few have access to computers or phones, so programs have had to scramble to get them some kind of access so they can have telehealth appointments with VA. 

"Part of the battle is keeping them connected," Monet said. 

"We're seeing a toll on our senior veterans especially," McClinton said. "And those with mental illness struggling to get their medication." 

Some veterans are taking quarantine well, though, McClinton said. 

"They've done this before," she said. "Something like this isn't necessarily out of the norm for them. A lot of their skills have come into play, while most of the civilians aren't taking the stay-in-place order well." 

'Bracing for the longterm'

As federal cash rolls out in the form of more funding for VA and other homelessness efforts, stimulus payments and unemployment benefits, Monet said some veterans at risk of homelessness are able to keep themselves off the street -- for now. 

But she's looking months down the road.

"I'm thinking about the fact that folks who are losing their jobs have access to extra help now, but I'm bracing for the longterm way down the line, five, six, seven months from now when a lot of this stuff runs out," she said. 

"April rent may have been taken care of, but in May we're going to have a situation," McClinton said. 

Even those eligible for that aid, though, may have difficulty getting it.

"If you don't have an address, where do they send the checks," McClinton said. "We've had to have some sent to the hotels." 

Homeless veterans, or those at risk, often "are not really employed in high-earning jobs," Monet said, meaning when the economy reopens, they could be competing for jobs in a much tighter market. 

But advocates like McClinton also want to ensure they're prepared for future emergencies.

"That's my fear," she said. "Making sure people don't go back to business as usual. We have to get people started thinking there is hope and if it comes again, we want to be prepared." 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in America, and another about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness because of poverty, lack of support networks and living in overcrowded or substandard housing. 

About 11 percent of the total homeless population in America are veterans. 

Most homeless vets are single, live in urban areas and experience mental illness, and alcohol or substance abuse.

Veterans of color are disproportionately homeless, according to NCHV. 

About 45 percent of homeless veterans are black or Hispanic, though they only represent about 3.4 percent of the total veteran population. 

Women veterans are also the fastest-growing group of homeless vets, according to the VA. 

About half of homeless veterans are younger than 50, though those groups represent only 28 percent of the total veteran population, NCHV data shows. 

In March, Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California Los Angeles released a report that predicted the pandemic would "wreak havoc" on America's homeless population. The report estimated that more than 21,000 homeless people in the United States, or about 4.3 percent of America's homeless, could require hospitalization because of the virus and more than 3,400 could die. 

At least 400,000 additional shelter beds accounting for social distancing are needed to house all of America's homeless, the report said. 

"The urgency is clear, as is the moral imperative to act," the authors wrote.

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