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Veteran Homelessness: Risks, Statistics & Assistance Programs

Homelessness is a prevalent and traumatic social phenomenon in the United States, with estimates showing that homelessness rates increased by 2.2 percent from 2019 to 2020. Homelessness can happen to anybody, and veterans may find themselves in vulnerable situations that could lead to homelessness.

According to research, the risk for veterans to become homeless is higher than that of the general population.1 Central factors that contribute to veteran homelessness in the U.S. include substance use disorders and mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the co-occurrence of these types of disorders.1 Other issues play a smaller role, including income problems, social isolation, having been incarcerated, and childhood trauma.1 Although this problem may seem insurmountable, various programs exist to help veterans beat homelessness.

Table of Contents:

What is a Homeless Veteran?

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) clarifies that a person is experiencing homelessness if they meet any of these criteria:2

  • A person who does not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
  • Someone who stays overnight at a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used for sleeping (i.e., car, abandoned building, park, bus or train station, camping ground, or airport).
  • A person who is living in a temporary shelter. These could include homeless shelters, motels paid for by the government or by charities, and transitional housing.
  • Someone who is living in a place not meant for human habitation.
  • A person who is getting ready to lose their home and has no other place to go.

Causes & Risk Factors for Veteran Homelessness

Homelessness is more prevalent among veterans than it is in the general population.1 A variety of factors contribute to homelessness in any population, and each situation is unique. However, some trends in veteran homelessness cannot be overlooked. Two main factors play a role in veterans becoming homeless— substance use and mental illness.1

Results of 31 studies on the causes of homelessness in veterans point to substance use as the most consequential risk factor.1 Experiencing a mental health disorder was also a strong risk factor in a veteran becoming homeless, and PTSD was a particular focus in the studies.1 However, it was determined that PTSD, while a factor, was not a greater risk than any other mental health disorder.1 Vets who have PTSD may be more likely to use substances as a way to cope with PTSD symptoms. We know from other research that there is a strong link between substance use disorder and mental illness, which could account for why veterans facing homelessness frequently experienced both of these risk factors.3 The studies also indicated other factors that could contribute to homelessness in veterans.

Veterans facing homelessness, or the risk of homelessness, were likely to struggle with these homelessness risk factors (listed in order of relevance):1

  • Substance use.
  • Mental illness.
  • Lack of income or low income.
  • Lack of social support.
  • Adverse childhood experiences.

Statistics & Facts About Veteran Homelessness

As mentioned above, research indicates that veterans experience homelessness and are at a higher risk for homelessness compared to the greater population. The following statistics and facts about veteran homelessness illustrate the extent of the problem:4, 5

  • In 2020, the number of homeless veterans was 37,252, an increase of less than 1 percent from 37,085 in 2019.
  • 59% of the veterans in 2020 were sheltered.
  • 98% of homeless veterans have a chronic pattern of homelessness.
  • Men made up 91 % of the veteran homeless population.
  • African American veterans made up one-third of homeless veterans.
  • California has just over one-third of all homeless veterans. Four states have seven out of ten homeless veterans. These states are California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Georgia.
  • Veterans who were in the conflicts Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom have a 27% higher rate of substance use disorder than veterans involved in other conflicts.

How Does Substance Abuse Play into Veteran Homelessness?

How does substance misuse contribute to or lead to homelessness among veterans? First, substance use disorder (SUD) can lead to continued compulsive behavior even if it harms the person’s life.6 For example, it can create difficulties keeping up with work responsibilities, money management, and interpersonal relationships.6 Therefore, SUD can easily lead to a veteran losing their home and becoming homeless.

Second, SUD is strongly connected to experiencing mental health disorders. Experiencing both conditions increases the risk of experiencing homelessness. Seeking treatment for both conditions through a co-occurring disorder treatment program will help veterans find the path to recovery. Many facilities, whether part the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health network or a private facility, offer specialized treatment tracks for veterans struggling with substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Laws, Programs, & Aid

Various programs and grants are available to offer homeless veteran assistance and support. Some examples include:

  • The Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program: this is a program that helps reintegrate veterans into the workplace.7
  • HUD–VA Supportive Housing: this collaborative effort between HUD and the VA helps veterans with housing.8
  • Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Services: this program helps disabled veterans with employment training.9
  • Supportive Services for Veteran Families: this program provides funding to agencies and community groups that assist veterans who may be in danger of losing their homes. It provides supportive services during this time, and if the veteran does lose housing, they work to find them a new home.8

How You Can Help Homeless Veterans

You can play a role in addressing veteran homelessness. If you have extra housing that you rent out to a veteran, you can work with the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program. You can contact a veteran’s homeless shelter or outreach program to find out what type of supplies you can donate. Some people may want to participate in serving homeless veterans in a greater capacity.

Other partnerships include:

  • Housing partnerships.
  • Employment partnerships.
  • Community partnerships.

With everyone working together, we can make a difference in reducing veteran homelessness. One of the first steps in doing so is helping vets who are struggling with a substance use disorder find appropriate treatment. At American Addiction Centers, our top-quality programs help treat veterans with substance use disorder.

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  1. Tsai, J., & Rosenheck, R. A. (2015). Risk factors for homelessness among US veterans. Epidemiologic Reviews, 37, 177–195.
  2. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (n.d.). The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Comorbidity: substance use disorders and other mental illnesses DrugFacts.
  4. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2021). The 2020 annual homeless assessment report (AHAR) to congress.
  5. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). VA Homeless programs.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?
  7. S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Homeless veterans’ reintegration program.
  8. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). VA homeless programs.
  9. United States Department of Labor. (2010). Employment assistance guide for service providers helping homeless veterans.
  10. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2021). HUD Releases Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.