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Homeless Vets — Does It Matter How Many?

Colorado TAG speaks with homeless vets

Of the total number of men experiencing homelessness in the United States, one out of three is a veteran. Ericka Walmsley of the Texas Veterans Commission gave this often-repeated statistic to a reporter in early December, and a controversy began.

The Austin American-Statesman has a regular column called PolitiFact, which is like Snopes.com without the humor. PolitiFact looks at claims made by journalists and government agencies (and promises made by politicians) and evaluates them, separating rhetoric from truth. In 2009, PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, for its coverage of the 2008 election.

This particular column was meticulously researched and written by W. Gardner Selby, who consulted more than a dozen sources to determine where the one-in-three assertion came from. Selby’s conclusion:

Bottom line: Experts outside Texas agree the claim that one-third of homeless men are veterans is based on obsolete data, though some cautioned that it’s hard to pinpoint how many homeless men are veterans, and one sorting of the data appears to justify the claim. We rate the statement Barely True.

Ericka Walmsley’s source was HelpUSA, which based its figure on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homelessness data gathered in 1996. Lawrence Cann of HelpUSA told Selby that it’s hard to tell because a lot of homeless veterans may not identify themselves as veterans when questioned by the volunteers who go out and count the homeless, and may not show up in the system in any other way if they don’t seek shelter or other services. Still, HelpUSA subsequently changed its webpage to read, “around one out of every four homeless men is a veteran.” Though, further down the page, it still says 30% (or about one in three.)

National Coalition for the Homeless director Neil Donovan told Selby his organization used the same HUD figures, and a January 2009 one-night “snapshot” revealed that of all the homeless people, sheltered or not, who could be contacted on that date, 13% were veterans. That number had previously been 15%. Donovan also noted that not many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have shown up in the homeless population yet because Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often takes years to fully manifest. So he’s suggesting that the number of homeless veterans in our future will indeed increase.

Of course, Selby also checked with HUD, the original source of the figures, and with Project CHALENG, whose report is available as a PDF file. According to CHALENG, in 1990, there were 27.5 million veterans (3 million of them poor), and 10 years later there were 23 million veterans (1.8 million of them poor), and…

[…] it does appear that a significant, long-term reduction in the numbers of homeless veterans has occurred.

A person could also interpret that as meaning there are fewer homeless veterans than 10 years ago because a lot of them have died in the meantime. This is not exactly the ideal way to make homelessness statistics go down. In December of 2010, the U.S. Secretary of veterans affairs estimated that there were 107,000 homeless veterans. After consulting Duncan McGhee, of the Texas Veterans Commission (where the statement that started this whole thing came from), Selby wrote,

Using U.S. Census Bureau statistics to extrapolate the percentage of males among veterans (93 percent), McGhee comes up with a figure of 99,720 homeless male veterans — slightly more than one-third of the total number of adult homeless people calculated from the January 2009 one-night survey.

So we’re back to approximately one-third again. Perhaps the most important quotation here came from Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute, who told Selby that although the one-in-three figure might be outdated, all such numbers should be considered rough estimates, adding,

In general, it’s important to remember that there are far too many homeless who are veterans.

And that is the real bottom line.

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Source: “Veterans commission representative says one in three homeless men is aveteran,” PolitiFact.com, 01/10/11
Source: “Veteran Services,” HelpUSA.com
Image by The National Guard, used under its Creative Commons license.