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Balshem H, Christensen V, Tuepker A, et al. A Critical Review of the Literature Regarding Homelessness Among Veterans [Internet]. Washington (DC): Department of Veterans Affairs (US); 2011 Apr.

Cover of A Critical Review of the Literature Regarding Homelessness Among Veterans

A Critical Review of the Literature Regarding Homelessness Among Veterans [Internet].

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INTRODUCTION

BACKGROUND

In 2009, President Obama and Secretary Shinseki committed to ending homelessness among Veterans.1 In support of that effort, the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010 developed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has established as one of its goals to prevent and end homelessness among Veterans in five years.2 An understanding of the epidemiology of homelessness among Veterans and the methodological strengths and weaknesses of this evidence base may inform program-planning efforts and future research needs. Understanding the risk factors for homelessness among Veterans and how these risk factors compare to the general population is important in developing identification and prevention programs for Veterans at risk for homelessness. This report was requested by VA Central Office and The National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans as part of that effort to identify what’s known and what’s not known about the prevalence of homelessness among Veterans, and about the risk factors for homelessness among Veterans, including risk factors related to military service and incarceration. Given the scope of this assignment and our awareness of other comprehensive review efforts examining the literature on the effectiveness of interventions designed to reduce homelessness, this report focuses on the characteristics, both individual and social, associated with homelessness among Veterans.

Contextual Information: Structural Risk Factors for Homelessness

Any discussion of risk factors for homelessness would be incomplete without acknowledging the complex and multi-dimensional interaction of individual and structural risk factors. Research has consistently demonstrated that structural factors such as lack of affordable housing, cuts in income assistance programs, and labor market changes have created social conditions that have fostered an increase in the homeless population in contemporary U.S. society. For contextual purposes, we include here a brief discussion of this evidence. Much of the literature on structural risk factors focuses on the general homeless population, and is therefore not Veteran specific. However, these structural risk factors for homelessness create a societal context that likely affects Veterans in much the same way as it does the homeless population in general, so a brief background discussion of these issues is relevant.

Lack of Affordable Housing

Lack of affordable housing has been recognized as one of the main structural causes of homelessness in the general population. 3-7 Over the past three decades there has been a dramatic decrease in the availability of affordable housing units for low income renters. In 1970 there was a surplus of 500,000 affordable housing units.8 By 2008, Extremely Low Income (ELI) renter households, defined as earning less than 30 percent of the median income for the metropolitan area or rural county where they live, experienced a deficit of 3.1 million units.9 In addition, rental assistance programs such as the Section 8 program, which enables low income households to afford rents in privately owned units, have not been able to assist more than a small number of those who qualify. Only about one-third of those who qualify for housing assistance occupied subsidized housing.10 It is estimated that the current gap between the number of affordable housing units and the number of people needing them is the largest on record, at 4.4 million units.9

Diminishing Employment Prospects

A labor market shift from well paying jobs to minimum wage jobs with fewer benefits has had a direct affect on homelessness. A 2007 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 17.4 percent of homeless adults in families were employed, while 13 percent of homeless single adults or unaccompanied youth were employed.11 For workers earning minimum wage, the real value of their pay has fallen considerably during the past several decades. For instance, the real value of minimum wage fell 26 percent from 1979 to 2004, the last year for which we were able to find such data.11 The decrease in the real value of income for minimum wage earners has had a significant impact on their ability to pay for housing.9 Between 1997 and 2005, the number of working families paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing increased 87 percent from 2.4 million to 4.5 million. Among renters alone, the increase in the number of working families who spend more than 50 percent on housing increased 103 percent, from 1 million to 2.1 million. 12 Currently, 71 percent of extremely low income renters spend more than half of their income on rent.9 Furthermore, unemployment has risen sharply in recent years. At the beginning of the current recession (December 2007), the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of unemployed persons was 7.7 million, with an unemployment rate of five percent. In July 2010, the number of unemployed persons was 14.7 million with an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. The number of people experiencing long-term unemployment (27 weeks or longer) grew from 22 percent to 45 percent of the unemployed (from 2.6 million to 6.6 million) between December 2008 and July 2010.9

Decrease in Entitlement Payments

A series of policy changes with regard to federal entitlements has steadily eroded the real dollar value of both Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFCD) payments, now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The monthly purchasing power of a family receiving AFDC fell by almost one-third, from $568 in 1970 to $385 in 1984. Because of tightened eligibility criteria the number of people who have been able to rely on the government for support has been reduced.8 The purchasing power of entitlement payments plays a significant role in the ability to secure housing. The fair market rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom unit ($959) exceeds the entire maximum AFDC grant for a mother with two children in every state except Alaska,13 and is greater than the 2010 maximum federal monthly Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payment of $674.9 Furthermore, only 10 to 15 percent of homeless individuals received SSI or SSDI assistance, most often because they do not know they qualify or they fail to complete the application process.14

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