Homelessness among veterans 'is a problem that responds well to resources': Professor

Ben Henwood, USC associate professor and director of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, examines the hurdles veterans face in acquiring stable housing in increasingly expensive markets, contributing to America's homelessness crisis.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, welcome back. It is, of course, Veteran's Day here in the United States, and want to focus in on that with at least a small victory when it comes to housing for veterans. We saw earlier this week VA Secretary Denis McDonough celebrating a small victory that's symbolic of a larger problem here in the US. That would be homeless veterans across the country. And the VA says it was able to house all the homeless veterans living in one area in West Los Angeles. It became known as Veteran's Row outside their VA Medical Center there.

In total, about 40 people were placed into transitional or sustainable housing in a small step forward in a large problem for the US. And for more on that, as part of our series looking at the state of home buying, brought to you by Veterans United Home Loans, want to bring on our guest, Ben Henwood, USC associate professor, as well as USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work director here, joins us. And Ben, I mean, when we look at it, it's obviously a big issue. I was kind of surprised to see that veteran homelessness has actually come down due to some efforts over the last few years. But talk to me about how large this problem is and really, I guess, where it stems from.


BEN HENWOOD: Yeah, just to give some context, over the past 10 years, we have seen a pretty dramatic decrease in homelessness, veterans' homelessness, from about 74,000 in 2010 to about roughly 37,000. That was our latest estimates when they were done in 2020. So there has been a big decrease in part because this is a problem that responds well to resources. And the VA and HUD collaborated to bring a housing first approach to the VA. And that really is what helped cause a decline in homeless veterans.

ZACK GUZMAN: I mean, I guess it might not be that hard to explain either when we talk about what has forced a lot of these veterans into homelessness. And we talk a lot about home price appreciation here in 2020 and 2021. I mean, how much of that is just-- I think everyone knows California's expensive when it comes to real estate. But how much of that is kind of the root cause here in terms of inequality and people being priced out of housing?

BEN HENWOOD: Yeah, well, clearly, the increased housing costs is what drives a lot of the homelessness problem. And it's not just increased costs, but to your point, it's the fact that we've seen an increase in inequality. So there's a segment of the population more generally that's just getting priced out of basic human needs, including a place to live.

So, you know, we found that in locales that have higher rates of inequality, you are going to see higher rates of homelessness. And that's a lot determined through the rental market. You know, fortunately, we have seen efforts to address this. Most recently, some of the legislation that's being proposed and passed in Congress to add a lot more, $150 billion, towards more affordable housing. So hopefully that can help address some of the problems you're talking about.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and I guess, obviously, I wouldn't want to overlook some of the other problems that stem from it. It's not just pricing. Obviously, veterans are dealing with different situations as well. And I was surprised to see how much work goes into that at the VA and kind of tracking some of the mental health issues around this and kind of everything else that can come with a history of service. But when you look at that piece, I mean, what's kind of, I guess, the ranking in terms of focus that we've seen in this national push to address the issue of homelessness among veterans, and I guess, some of the progress there, if there is any?

BEN HENWOOD: Yeah, so clearly, issues around mental health and addiction come up. Just, they are disproportionately high in the homeless population. You know, still, housing is probably the main contributor, but I think to address those rates, really, you need services that's attached to housing. And I think one of the things I think the VA has worked to improve is to really getting resources out into the community, and not necessarily waiting for veterans to come onto campus to get those services they need. But I think more effort towards making access to mental health care available obviously can help that situation.

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, it's important to spotlight here on Veteran's Day, and appreciate you stopping by to help explain some of it. Ben Henwood, USC associate professor, thanks again for the time and for stopping by.