Affordable Housing Initiative: Homeless and At-Risk Veterans

Washington, D.C. (population 632,323)
Program Type: Public/Private Community Response
Contact: Matt Cary, Director of D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs,

Key Takeaways:
Cities can help coordinate services and build bridges. Washington, D.C. has many stakeholders invested in veterans’ issues. The D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs helps keep city officials and the community informed on veterans’ issues and the range of services available. The agency’s collaborative partnerships help fill the gap between needs and services received.

Structure programs to meet community needs using available resources. D.C. has committed to tackling veteran homelessness as evidenced not only by their budget, but also by reshaping services to more effectively provide permanent supportive housing for veterans.
By establishing partnerships with area stakeholders and committing to providing housing and supportive services, D.C. has seen a 29 percent decrease in veteran homelessness over the last four years.

Volunteers coordinated through the D.C Office of Veterans Affairs receive donated furniture from the Walter Reed Medical Center. The initiative provides recently housed veterans with necessary furniture.The District of Columbia has a smaller percentage of veterans (5.8 percent) than the national average (9.1 percent), but as is the case in many other U.S. cities, veterans in D.C. disproportionately struggle with homelessness. During the annual point-in-time homeless count in 2009, 702 homeless veterans were identified on a single night in the District, representing 11.2 percent of the city’s entire homeless population at that time. At the 2013 point-in-time count, 499 homeless veterans were counted, comprising 7.2 percent of the total D.C. homeless population. Moving forward, the city is committed to further reducing homelessness overall, and is also dedicating specific resources to meet veterans’ unique needs.

To help meet the housing needs of veterans and others, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced a $100 million affordable housing initiative as part of his 2013 State of the District Address. With the City Council’s approval of the supplemental FY 2013 and FY 2014 budget, Mayor Gray’s pledge is on track to be implemented. The initiative grew from the 2012 One City Summit, in which residents and city officials came together for a day long deliberation on the direction of city policies. Affordable housing emerged from the summit as the top issue of concern.

The $100 million affordable housing initiative provides significant funding to a variety of the District’s housing programs. The bulk of the funds, $83 million, went to the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund to aid in the development of affordable housing. $2.2 million will go towards the city’s Housing First program, which provides permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals, including veterans. Additionally, rapid-rehousing programs, rental assistance, and home-ownership programs all received renewed funds to assist low-income D.C. households.

To ensure that the affordable housing funds are best utilized, the budget also set aside money to build a centralized affordable housing database that District agencies will be able to use to better monitor and guide affordable housing projects. These local sources of affordable housing funds, coupled with federal and private funds, are enabling D.C. to provide a full spectrum of services to keep veterans off the streets and in stable housing situations.

D.C. officials have worked hard to efficiently administer federal programs for housing veterans. The District’s innovative approach to employing HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers has received accolades from HUD and housing advocates. The District created a HUD-VASH database to facilitate knowledge sharing among service providers in order to reduce red-tape and more quickly provide housing to voucher recipients.

In order to assist the local federal VA office, the District has also entered into a Memorandum of Understanding in which the D.C. Department of Human Services provides the supportive services and housing counseling associated with 205 HUD-VASH recipients, instead of the traditional model in which the local VA provides those services. Furthermore, city officials relied on housing administrators of existing HUD programs to quickly identify and forge relationships with landlords willing to accept HUD-VASH vouchers. These collaborative efforts have helped D.C. veterans benefit from the HUD-VASH program more quickly than they otherwise would have been able. In May 2013, HUD announced that the District received 65 additional HUD-VASH vouchers to provide permanent supportive housing and services to local veterans.
Navigating the maze of available programs and services for veterans can be an intimidating and confusing process. To encourage and support veteran access to the benefits they have earned, Mayor Gray created the D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA) in October 2001. The office was established to provide benefits, assistance, information, outreach, advocacy, and service provider coordination to veterans and their families. To achieve its mission, the OVA established collaborative relationships with area stakeholders dedicated to serving veterans. At a standing quarterly meeting, representatives from the regional federal VA office and other area veteran service providers meet to give updates and discuss current challenges.

As an increasing number of formerly homeless veterans have been able to move into housing, the need has arisen to assist veterans with furnishing their new homes. Starting in 2011, OVA partnered with various local government and community organizations to coordinate a volunteer-driven system to provide furnishings free of charge to veterans participating in HUD-VASH. First, OVA secured a no-lease warehouse donated by the D.C. Department of General Services. They have since worked with local military bases and private organizations to acquire excess furniture donations estimated to be worth more than $700,000. The local teamsters union provides veteran volunteer drivers and a vehicle to transport the furnishings to veterans in need on a weekly basis. To date, over 160 veterans that receive HUD-VASH or other housing vouchers have received furnishings from the program.

Closely related to efforts to prevent homelessness is the provision of employment services and financial counseling. Younger veterans who served post 9/11 experience high rates of unemployment. Nationally, in 2012, this segment of the population had a 9.9 percent unemployment rate compared to 7.9 percent for non-veterans. In response to this issue being raised at the quarterly meeting of veteran service providers, the Community Resource and Referral Center, a centralized hub that provides services to veterans in the city, now offers weekly job counseling for veterans. In D.C., the unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans has decreased from 13.4 percent in 2010 to 4.4 percent in 2012.

Furthermore, in 2012 under the Mayor’s direction, OVA and its partners launched the Veterans Assistance for Learning, Opportunity and Readiness (VALOR) program. The program provides financial literacy training classes for veterans and their families and was launched at Bank on DC, a public/private partnership that serves “unbanked” populations, individuals and families not connected in any way to a financial institution.

While not all municipalities are in the position to commit new resources to the development and preservation of affordable housing, the actions of D.C.’s Office of Veterans Affairs demonstrates what can happen when local leaders bring stakeholders together to find a way to ensure the needs of veterans are met.