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Despite decline, US military veteran homelessness persists in California

The number of homeless US military veterans in California fell 5.4% in 2018 but 28% of homeless veterans live in the state

California has 12.3 percent of the United States population but 28 percent of it homeless veterans – 10,836 people as of 2018. That number is more than triple the number of homeless veterans in Florida, which, at 2,543 people, has the second highest number in the country.

Yet the number of homeless veterans has dropped by 5.4 percent since 2017, according to a November 1 statement by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie. According to HUD’s estimates, there were 37,878 homeless veterans in the United States in 2018. Despite the overall decline, the numbers are still high in California. Is this by virtue of the state’s population – estimated at 39.5 million – or are other factors at play?

In California, veterans “happen to be overrepresented in the population of people experiencing homelessness,” Lindsey Sin, Deputy Secretary of Women Veterans Affairs at California Department of Veterans Affairs told The Defense Post.

“There are many contributors to homelessness among a population and among the veteran population. Those can include cost of living and a lack of affordable housing. For veterans it can also include lack of family/social network support,” said Sin.

Homelessness is concentrated in urban areas. According to HUD’s estimates, 52,765 people were homeless in Los Angeles county in 2018; 31,285 in the city of L.A. In both the city and county 3,538 veterans experienced homelessness. The majority of California’s homeless people end up on the street with some becoming chronically unsheltered.

“In the past, homelessness was largely viewed as an economic problem,” Dr. Jack Tsai, an Associate Professor and Clinical Psychologist at Yale University, told The Defense Post. “But due to deinstitutionalization of those with severe mental illness and the increasing visibility of homelessness in large cities, homelessness really has become a public health problem and one closely related to mental illness.”

Veterans are more likely than civilians to experience homelessness due to combat-related injury or illness, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, or sexual trauma while in service, according to the National Coalition to End Homelessness. These traumas, if untreated, can result in substance abuse which affects a person’s ability to earn a stable income and increases the risk of homelessness.

“Some veterans entered the military with mental health problems – childhood trauma and behavioral problems are higher among those entering the military compared to those in the general population” Tsai said. “In addition, the military provides a structured environment with peers around for support, and many veterans also experience adjustment problems after leaving the service with the environment change.”

The majority of homeless veterans are men over 50 years old, but the demographics are changing. According to the Veterans Administration’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the number of homeless female veterans increased by 7 percent from 2016 to 2017. This is related to an overall increase of women enrolled in the military. As of 2016, women composed 15 percent of the active military; with this increase the numbers of female veterans experiencing homelessness will likely rise as well.

As of August 2018, California’s Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council initiated the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, part of Senate Bill 850 that was signed by Governor Brown in 2018. HEAP aims to provide funding for California’s Continuums of Care (CoCs), which provide emergency housing and other services to those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

The CoCs of Los Angeles City and County managed 41 percent of the state’s homeless population in 2017, of which 24 percent were veterans. According to the HCFC, those CoCs will receive $81 million in 2018-2019 to expand services in homelessness prevention and emergency aid.

According to Sin, the California Department of Veterans Affairs is also working through the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program “and actively awarding grants to build affordable and permanent housing for veterans in the state.”

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