Veterans facing homelessness deserve more

Rates in Mass. are decreasing more slowly than elsewhere

WHILE CONTINUING TO contend with the evolving challenges of the pandemic, we must return attention to a crisis that long predated COVID-19 – homelessness in our region.

This crisis is made worse by a lack of affordable housing and high demand for it. This is a combustible formula that threatens our regional economic growth and drives greater inequity into our communities. And when we examine data more closely, we see it is our veterans whom are often left behind.

Want to buy a home in Metro Boston? According to FortuneBuilders.com, you better have saved your money. Metro Boston is the 7th most expensive market in the country. Rent, instead? Good luck. Metro Boston is 3rd on the list of the most expensive home rental regions in the country.

As a result, middle-class earners are squeezed and see their economic mobility limited. And for those in lower income brackets, they are forced day by day to walk across an economic tight rope as high rents force families to sacrifice elsewhere, including forgoing food and health care. When rent consumes more than 30 percent of your income, even a small increase in housing costs can push families on the street. Surely this is not their American Dream.

To make matters worse, a recent trend in homelessness data indicates the housing problem is affecting our veterans at higher rates than the rest of the country. Our veterans deserve better. We as a society and public policy planners have let them down.

Massachusetts is home to more than 300,000 veterans. Compared to other states, our veteran population is older, more educated, and less likely to be chronically unemployed. However, this does not mean all veterans in the Commonwealth are succeeding.

Specifically, the intersection of two data points reveals a negative trend foreshadowing deeper problems. While the rate of veteran homelessness in Massachusetts is decreasing, it is doing so at a slower rate than the rest of the country. And, during the past decade, general population homelessness in our state has swelled 22 percent while the nation’s total declined by 12 percent.

Anxiety around housing adds instability to the lives of veterans and their families. Without a strong commitment to growing our volume of affordable housing, too many veterans and their families will be left out in the cold. Instability breeds isolation, mental health issues, and increases the risk of job loss.

At the same time, for veterans with PTSD, other mental health conditions, or a substance use disorder, services that aim to restore their independence are undercut by a dearth of affordable housing. Even when insured with housing vouchers from the VA, the high cost of housing is often too great a burden.

This cycle plays out across the state and beyond. Every day in the US, 20 veterans commit suicide.

The academic journal Addiction found that this risk increases among veterans who have both substance use and mental health conditions, which often intersect with being unhoused. This research underscores the need for treatment that simultaneously addresses both conditions – in the behavioral health field referred to as co-occurring disorders. Nearly half of the returning veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated by the VA for symptoms of mental illness. We need to treat the whole person and the whole vet, that means making sure all their needs from health care to housing are met.

Fortunately, we know what works. The City of Somerville and Volunteers of America of Massachusetts have partnered since 2012 to support veterans in crisis. The Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center is a critical service in our city. The center provides transitional housing for veterans experiencing homelessness. Safely housed, veterans begin their recovery through an array of services. Volunteers of America’s integrated behavioral health model addresses both substance use and mental health needs, as well as the social determinants of health that are inextricably intertwined.

This type of model serves the whole person, is successful, and should be expanded. Central to this success is the integration of behavioral health with housing, job training, and case management along with co-occurring treatment. The missing piece to this coherent strategy is simply greater volume of affordable housing for veterans, especially those that continue to receive behavioral health treatment and long-term case management.

We need an expansion of these services, augmented by a set of affordable providers, which would offset the intensive costs of co-occurring treatment, along with forward thinking housing programs, such as the 100 Homes program that we implemented in Somerville in which the city buys existing housing units and makes them permanently affordable. 100 Homes should one day evolve into the 2,000 Homes program. However, for veterans currently living in crisis, they can’t wait until we get there.

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Until then, we know effective services providing tools to regain independence and achieve true potential are possible. For us to meet our true potential as a state, safe and affordable housing must be woven into public policy to ensure our most vulnerable are protected.

Joseph Curtatone is mayor of Somerville. Charles Gagnon is president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Massachusetts.