National Veteran Homelessness

Who are homeless veterans?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly five percent being female. The majority of them are single; come from urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans.

America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.


Roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively.

About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

How many homeless veterans are there?

Although flawless counts are impossible to come by – the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty – the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) estimate that over 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.

Why are veterans homeless?

In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.

Although “most homeless people are single, unaffiliated men… most housing money in existing federal homelessness programs, in contrast, is devoted to helping homeless families or homeless women with dependant children,” as is stated in the study “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” (Understanding Homelessness: New Policy and Research Perspectives, Fannie Mae Foundation, 1997).

Doesn’t VA take care of homeless veterans?

To a certain extent, yes. VA’s specialized homeless programs served more than 92,000 veterans in 2009, which is highly commendable. This still leaves well over 100,000 more veterans, however, who experience homelessness annually and must seek assistance from local government agencies and community- and faith-based service organizations. In its November 2007 "Vital Mission" report, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that up to about half a million veterans have characteristics that put them in danger of homelessness. These veterans may require supportive services outside the scope of most VA homeless programs.

Since 1987, VA’s programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with such community service providers to help expand services to more veterans in crisis. These partnerships are credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by more than half over the past six years. More information about VA homeless programs and initiatives can be found here.

What services do veterans need?

Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing, nutritional meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, personal development and empowerment. Additionally, veterans need job assessment, training and placement assistance.

NCHV strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping them obtain and sustain employment.

What seems to work best?

The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.

Government money, while important, is currently limited, and available services are often at capacity. It is critical, therefore, that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities most Americans take for granted: housing, employment and health care. Veterans who participate in collaborative programs are afforded more services and have higher chances of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.

What can I do?

  • Determine the need in your community. Visit with homeless veteran providers. Contact your mayor’s office for a list of providers, or search the NCHV database.
  • Involve others. If you are not already part of an organization, align yourself with a few other people who are interested in attacking this issue.
  • Participate in local homeless coalitions. Chances are, there is one in your community. If not, this could be the time to bring people together around this critical need.
  • Make a donation to your local homeless veteran provider.
  • Contact your elected officials. Discuss what is being done in your community for homeless veterans


What is the definition of homeless?

The United States Code contains the official federal definition of homelessness, which is commonly used because it controls federal funding streams. In Title 42, Chapter 119, Subchapter 1, "homeless" is defined as:

§11302. General definition of homeless individual
(a) In general

For purposes of this chapter, the term "homeless" or "homeless individual or homeless person" includes––

1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and

2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is––

    A. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide 
    temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and 
    transitional housing for the mentally ill); 
    B. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be 
    institutionalized; or 
    C. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping 
    accommodation for human beings."

Who is a veteran?

In general, most organizations use the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) eligibility criteria to determine which veterans can access services. Eligibility for VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions. Benefits vary according to factors connected with the type and length of military service. To see details of eligibility criteria for VA compensation and benefits, view the current benefits manual here.

Demographics of homeless veterans

"The Forgotten Americans-Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve" – released Dec. 8, 1999, by the U.S. Interagency Council on the Homeless (USICH) – is the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), which was completed in 1996 and updated three years later. You can download the NSHAPC reports at www.huduser.org.

Veteran-specific highlights from the USICH report include:

23% of the homeless population are veterans
33% of the male homeless population are veterans
47% served Vietnam-era
17% served post-Vietnam
15% served pre-Vietnam
67% served three or more years
33% were stationed in war zone
25% have used VA homeless services
85% completed high school/GED, compared to 56% of non-veterans
89% received an honorable discharge
79% reside in central cities
16% reside in suburban areas
5% reside in rural areas
76% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems
46% are white males, compared to 34% of non-veterans
46% are age 45 or older, compared to 20% non-veterans

Service needs cited include:

45% need help finding a job
37% need help finding housing

How many homeless veterans are there?

Accurate numbers community-by-community are not available. Some communities do annual counts; others do an estimate based on a variety of factors. Contact the closest VA medical center's homeless coordinator, the office of your mayor, or another presiding official to get local information.

A regional breakdown of numbers of homeless veterans, using data from HUD's Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) report – which contains the most widely cited estimate of the number of homeless veterans – can be found here.

Getting Started

Before beginning a search for assistance available to you, it will be helpful to make a plan. Think about what it is that you need. Do you need medical, substance abuse or mental health care? Are you ready to work or do you need to learn a job skill? Do you have legal issues that need to be resolved? Do you need to reapply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or VA benefit checks?

Make a list of your needs. This list is a tool to help you get organized and to help you figure out where to look for the kinds of help you may need. A sample list might look like this:

  1. I need a place to live today.
  2. I need a job.
  3. I need clothing to wear to work.
  4. I want to get counseling for PTSD.
  5. I owe child support.
  6. I need to find out what federal benefits I can get as a veteran.

Think about your list as you read through these web pages. Who do you think can help you with each of your needs? There may be one organization able to work with you on many issues, or you may need to contact several agencies. Keep track of the steps you take, including the dates and names of people you contact for information or assistance. This will help you explain your situation and make sure you don’t repeat steps you have already taken. Although this website provides national addresses for many organizations, we recommend you check your phone book for local, county, and state agencies that can direct you to help that is available in your area.

Requesting Information

If writing a letter or email to request information, be clear. Keep it short, to the point, and write legibly. Include the following information:

  • Your name and contact information.
  • A brief statement about your current situation.
  • Your specific request.
  • What you have done so far (Example: I have written to _______ organization and they suggested I contact you).

When contacting an agency for help by mail, phone, or email, be persistent and polite in order to get results. Ask questions if information is not clear to you. Remember that organizations are often staffed by volunteers who are eager to help, but may not have the answers you are looking for. If someone cannot help you, ask them to tell you who can.

Mailing Address

If you are not enrolled in a residence program, you may not have a fixed address, which means receiving mail and phone calls may be a problem. If staying at a shelter, ask to use that address and telephone number as your contact information. If moving around, ask to receive mail and phone calls for the short term at a local drop-in center, shelter, VA regional office or clinic, local veteran service organization (VSO), or your church. Enrolling in a transitional housing program as soon as possible will give you a fixed address and phone number to use while applying for and receiving employment assistance and other supportive services.

Click here for more assistance.

Wisconsin Veteran Homelessness

Milwaukee Veterans Stand Down (Click Here for more information)

Homeless Veterans Assistance (Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs) (Click Here for more information)

The Veterans Assistance Program (VAP) helps homeless veterans and those at-risk of becoming homeless receive the job training, education, counseling and rehabilitative services (such as alcohol and drug abuse treatment) they need to obtain steady employment, affordable housing and the skills to sustain a productive lifestyle.

The VAP is designed to break the cycle of homelessness and help veterans transition back into the mainstream of society. The VAP also helps prevent homelessness by providing job training and referrals to unemployed or underemployed veterans who otherwise might end up living on the streets.

The Veterans Assistance Centers partner with federal, state, and local governments, county veterans service offices and representatives from local communities--including veterans service organizations, private charities, community organizations, and local businesses. This extensive coalition produces outreach and a referral network that gets homeless veterans off the streets and into a center for appropriate assistance.

The philosophy of the program is simple:  vets helping vets; a one-stop shop to access needed services; a structured environment with long days and hard work to rekindle the pride and confidence these men and women once used to defend our nation.

The Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs established the VAP in 1994. This statewide "back-to-work" program operates Veterans Assistance Centers,  which are "one-stop shops" for the services homeless and at-risk veterans need. With convenient access to nearby VA medical centers, the Veterans Assistance Centers are located at:

  • Fort McCoy
  • The campus of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King (on the Waupaca Chain O'Lakes)
  • The campus of the Southern Wisconsin Center near Union Grove
  • The campus of the Northern Wisconsin Center in Chippewa Falls

Incarcerated veterans and their families can learn about programs and resources available to them through: 

A Guidebook for Incarcerated Veterans in Wisconsin.

Homeless Veterans Initiative Serves Hundreds in Milwaukee

By Bill Christofferson

[Printer-Friendly Version]

When two Vietnam veterans began a weekly outreach program in 2008, to find homeless veterans in Milwaukee and assess their needs, they didn't know what they were getting into. That two-hour a week commitment has blossomed into the Homeless Veterans Initiative (HVI), a program that has helped hundreds of homeless and low-income veterans to rebuild their lives. It now runs a food pantry, offers a free weekly breakfast, helps veterans get benefits, provides furniture and clothing, and connects them with other programs, services, education and jobs.

"We learned everything the hard way. We really didn't know what we needed to address, when the project began," Mark Foreman said, but Veterans for Peace (VFP) Chapter 102, of which he is past president, knew there were several hundred homeless veterans in the Milwaukee area who needed help, and the chapter took it on as a project. Foreman, now president of the Homeless Veterans Initiative board, is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and represents VVAW on a state Veterans Affairs board.

To learn what homeless veterans needed, Foreman and Dennis Johnson, another VFP member, began to visit a daytime shelter and resource center for the homeless every week for two hours, with a sign saying they were seeking veterans.

It started on a shoestring budget, with donations from Foreman's friends and family and VFP members. At first, help was limited to bus passes and inexpensive cell phones, but quickly expanded to include helping veterans to get Veterans Administration benefits and other services. "We'd interview them, and if they were eligible, because they were so fragile and knew so little about the bureaucracy, we'd literally take them by the hand to help them file a claim," Foreman said. So far, 70 to 100 veterans have been able to get benefits they didn't know they were entitled to. Others have also qualified for HUD-VASH loans to get into apartments. One 70-year-old vet was about to be evicted from his rooming house when he crossed paths with Foreman and Johnson. He didn't qualify for VA benefits, but they helped him apply for Social Security, and he ended up with a $35,000 check for back benefits plus a monthly payment. He decided to move back into the rooming house near the VA, where his friends are.

chrsitofferson DennisCooler

Johnson, meanwhile, expanded the outreach program, with pre-dawn patrols to offer coffee and sandwiches to veterans living under bridges, in parks, and in abandoned buildings. One of them, found living in an abandoned factory, now has an apartment, works full-time for the homeless initiative and runs its furniture program, picking up donations and delivering them to veterans. From sandwiches and coffee, the initiative expanded to provide groceries, with deliveries once a week to a growing list of low income veterans. The food program operated out of Johnson's garage, until late in 2010 when St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, located near the Veterans Administration in West Milwaukee, opened its doors and its basement to the program. The church is now the location of the weekly food pantry, which supplies food to more than 200 veterans and family members every Tuesday, and to a free breakfast on Thursdays, which also feeds about 200 people a week. Clothing, household items and a well-stocked library are also available on pantry days, and the breakfast has become a social event that includes sing-alongs at the piano, blood pressure checks, chair massages and other activities. Dozens of volunteers now help with the program, which has interviewed and served some 700 veterans since it began.

"When we first moved into the church, I didn't know if there would be enough people to help us," Johnson said. "In the last year we have had so many people come forward who want to help, are happy to help, have great skills, and unlimited energy. I'm just dumbfounded and so grateful. It has changed my whole outlook on the human race." When the program needed a walk-in cooler, Milwaukee's Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter loaned HVI the money to buy it, and John Zutz, a longtime VVAW member and activist, helped organize the installation. Bill Christofferson, another VVAW member, is secretary of the HVI board.

In its early stages, the program raised most of its money in small donations, collecting money at neighborhood festivals, street fairs, and parades. Now it has begun to attract some foundation grants, including two of $20,000 each last year, when donations topped $100,000. Veterans organizations, church groups, businesses, and individuals all have been generous donors, but small individual donations are still a key piece of the budget.

The program continues to evolve. Johnson's next vision is for a home visitation program to reach out to home bound veterans — who still get weekly food deliveries — and spend some time with them, offer some companionship, and see what other help they need. "We learned in the military that we don't leave our wounded behind. That's our guiding principle," says Johnson, now the program's executive director. "No one who has ever served the United States in uniform should end up living on the street."

For more information, visit the Homeless Veterans Initiative website, www.neverhomeless.org.

Bill Christofferson is a VVAW member from Milwaukee.

christofferson CoolerFan

John Zutz of VVAW, left, helps install fan in walk-in cooler. VVAW loaned the money to purchase it.

Article from "The Veteran" published by VVAW, Spring 2012


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