VA, HUD to use better data to aid homeless vets

Thursday - 2/10/2011, 7:00pm EST

Jared Serbu, Reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development say they have developed a new, more accurate way to track homelessness among the nation's veterans, providing a clearer picture of the problem as they try to meet the president's goal of eliminating veteran homelessness within five years.

The agencies said the Annual Veterans Homelessness Assessment Report (AVHAR) - just released Thursday - is the most authoritative analysis of the issue that's ever been done. The premise is that the government should not just measure the raw number of homeless vets, but also gauge the extent and nature of homelessness, as well as how or whether veterans access services for the homeless.

VA and HUD say the report was based on 2009 data.

"Veteran AVHAR is essential to having the clearest understanding possible of the scope and breadth of veteran homelessness and to measure our progress against ending it," said Anthony Love, deputy director of national programs at the Interagency Council on Homelessness, during a conference call with reporters. "Moreover, in today's tight budget environment , good data will also help us make the responsible fiscal choices to reduce the federal deficit and make intelligence, efficient and effective use of taxpayer resources."

The assessment found that 136,000 veterans were on the street for at least one night in 2009. On a particular January night chosen for the study, there were nearly 76,000 homeless vets. Tammy Duckworth, VA's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said the second figure is important.

"We need to know a good number for how many veterans are truly on the streets of this nation and what their makeup is so that we can extend the correct combination of services and benefits to them," she said. "Whether that is health care, employment assistance, mental health counseling, housing assistance, whatever it is, we need to be able to provide them with the benefits they deserve."

At first glance, the analysis appears to show that the nation is making a good deal of progress toward wiping out veteran homelessness: the count in 2007 was 131,000 and 107,000 in 2008. But Mark Johnston, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for special needs, said the earlier numbers likely are less reliable than the figures released Thursday.

"It frankly isn't fair to compare the '08 number to the 2009 count, which is now done with VA and HUD very, very consistently across communities," he said. "So going forward, when we release the 2010 number and especially the 2011 number we're really going to have an apples-to-apples comparison on the figures."

The agencies said the new data will let them do a much better job at targeting assistance to those who truly need it.

"For veterans that are only homeless for a couple of weeks or even a month or so, we can target those veterans for rapid re-housing interventions, where you don't need to put them into long-term housing for years and years," Johnston said. "On the other hand, for the 15 percent or so that are really chronically homeless-that is, they have multiple disabilities, they've been on the streets for years and they're cycling through public institutions like jails, psychiatric hospitals and ERs-we can move those people into a long term resource that provides them both the housing and the services they need to finally get stabilized."

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