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Rental Assistance Shortage Leaves 700,000 Veterans Homeless or Struggling to Afford Housing

As Veterans Day approaches, hundreds of thousands of veterans struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Some 38,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates. Moreover, 666,000 veterans lived in low-income households that paid more than half of their income for rent and utilities in 2017, Census data show. Low-income people with such high housing costs — what HUD calls “severe cost burdens” — often must skimp on items like food or clothing to pay for rent and utilities. They also face a growing risk of utility cutoffs, eviction, and homelessness as bills pile up.

We know how to help them: federal rental assistance such as Housing Choice Vouchers is highly effective at enabling low-income people to afford decent, stable homes, study after study shows. But most eligible households — and nearly all severely cost-burdened veterans — don’t get that assistance due to funding limitations.

The nation has cut homelessness among veterans nearly in half since 2009, in part by providing more housing vouchers for homeless veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. Eliminating veteran homelessness remains a priority but will be challenging, partly because so many veterans face severe cost burdens and thus are at serious risk of becoming homeless.

Veterans in households that pay over half their income for rent and utilities are a diverse group, ranging from elderly veterans of World War II and Korea to young men and women who recently left military service. Some 44 percent are 62 or older (including 15 percent who are over 80), and another 19 percent are non-elderly veterans with disabilities. Over 230,000 children live in severely cost-burdened low-income households that include veterans. Some of these veterans, such as those with chronic behavioral or physical health conditions, need supportive services like those that HUD-VASH provides but, for most, rental assistance alone could stabilize their housing and help them make ends meet.

Policymakers’ first step to help veterans afford housing should be to adequately fund rental assistance programs in 2020. Those programs already assist about 280,000 veterans, some through HUD-VASH but most through mainstream rental assistance that doesn’t specifically target veterans. Avoiding cuts to those programs thus will protect many vulnerable veterans. But we should do better by expanding rental assistance so that as few veterans as possible are homeless or forced to choose each month between paying the rent and meeting their family’s other basic needs.