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September 9, 2013

VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program: Communities Putting Important “Skin in the Game” to Serve America’s Veteran Families

VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program: Communities Putting Important “Skin in the Game” to Serve America’s Veteran Families


Recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released its long-awaited report on the effectiveness of its permanent housing program, known more commonly as its Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.

For those unfamiliar with the program, SSVF is a first-of-its-kind initiative for the VA in that it is a community-based, competitive grant program employing the principles of ‘housing first’ to assist veteran families at imminent risk of losing their home to maintain safe, permanent housing. Importantly, it is also a program designed to meet the needs of veteran families that have already become homeless by rapidly re-engaging with permanent housing and other support structures to achieve community integration.

Over the course of my career, I ran The Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, N.Y. (one of the VA’s original 85 SSVF grantees nationwide) and am now the Senior Director for Community Engagement and Innovation at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF). Here, I oversee a Direct Technical Assistance (DTA) initiative for New York’s 22 VA SSVF grants and a $26 million investment made by the VA in a community-based capacity designed to serve nearly 7,000 veteran families annually. From my perspective, there is no more important vehicle serving veteran families than SSVF. Its strengths lie in its flexibility, veteran family focus and community basis.

While the resources provided by SSVF have already had a powerful, positive impact on the veteran families it serves, there is a great opportunity to improve as important data to support the VA’s continued investment in communities has become available. There is a greater ability to communicate the value of that investment with our elected officials, veteran and military service organizations, government, Continuums of Care, philanthropic institutions, community leaders and the veteran families themselves.

To these groups, VA SSVF capacity represents the basis by which to build additional capacity around community settings. We view SSVF grants as the community’s ‘rally point’ and the basis by which to align the well-intentioned resources of others who want to serve America’s veteran families. Equally important, doing so further reduces fragmentation in veterans’ services, something we’re just beginning to realize must be done in order to simplify access to high quality services and resources for America’s warriors and their families.

To accomplish the goal of preventing and ending veteran homelessness, the VA has increased partnerships in community settings to the tune of $300 million beginning in October, with a focus on meeting veteran families where they are and helping them move forward to improve their health and housing stability. As a result, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2012 Point-in-Time (PIT) count, a primary measure for assessing progress in the fight against veteran family homelessness, reveals a 17.2 percent reduction in veteran homelessness. As a percentage of the adult homelessness population, veteran homelessness declined from 16 percent in 2009, to 13 percent as of 2012, this despite a challenging economic period according the VA’s report.

In keeping with a more prevention-based, public health approach, the VA has been able to expand its continuum of services through community-based capacity by offering homelessness prevention services further upstream – to veteran families at-risk of homelessness, and by offering more low-income, time limited, and flexible housing stability and case management resources to veteran families.

In the first year of the SSVF program, the VA reports 21,100 veteran households – nearly 1,700 in New York alone – with over 35,000 adults and children receiving assistance. Sixty-four percent of households served were homeless and received rapid re-housing assistance. The balance of households (36 percent) served were imminently at-risk of homelessness.

Other important characteristics of those served by SSVF include:

  • 16% of veteran families assisted served in Iraq or Afghanistan and almost two-thirds of these were homeless.
  • SSVF serves a younger population than is found in the homeless veteran population as a whole – 36% of those served by SSVF were age 30 and under.
  • 15% of recipients were female veterans – the highest proportion of women served of any VA homeless initiative.
  • 75% of participant households had incomes below 30% of the local AMI.
  • 46% of all adult participants had a disabling condition.

And according to the VA, of the 21,393 veterans served who exited the program in fiscal year 2012, 86 percent had a successful outcome and exited to permanent housing at an average cost of approximately $2,800 per household, thus positioning SSVF resources as both highly effective and efficient.

The report concludes that while research on ending homelessness has increasingly emphasized interventions that provide permanent housing for both single adults and homeless families, evidence suggests that subsidized permanent housing matched with supportive services is one of the most clinically and cost-effective interventions for high-need individuals experiencing homelessness.

From my foxhole, it’s refreshing to see the data support what we’re seeing across communities here in New York State: SSVF works. I’m encouraged by these findings. Equally encouraging is the fact that communities are now directly engaged – with resourced “skin in the game” – serving their veteran families. This community capacity provides valuable insight into the future for serving America’s veteran families; they are the new platforms by which to serve those who serve their country.

Colonel (Retired) Jim McDonough is the Senior Director for Community Engagement and Innovation at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF). He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and resides in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. with his family.


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