New York City

NYC got homeless vets off the streets. Can it replicate the feat?

A major federal initiative, plenty of city resources and coordination were key in the city’s success.

Former commissioner of the city Department of Veterans' Services Loree Sutton.

Former commissioner of the city Department of Veterans' Services Loree Sutton. Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock

It’s rare to hear about New York City’s successes on homelessness. But five years ago, the federal government declared that New York City had ended chronic veteran homelessness, a major milestone. Since 2011, the city government’s statistics show veteran street homelessness has declined by more than 98%. The latest figures from the city’s most recent point-in-time count show only six homeless veterans remaining in the five boroughs.

“This is really the only bright spot in the homelessness front for New York City over these last several years,” said Loree Sutton, the former commissioner of the city Department of Veterans’ Services.

Sutton is seeking the city’s Democratic mayoral nomination in 2021, and she often touts this success as proof she could be the one to finally tackle New York’s broader homelessness crisis.

But if the city has been able to house so many homeless veterans, why isn’t the same city government already using those same strategies to eliminate homelessness for all New Yorkers?

In part, because the same resources aren’t available for nonveteran homelessness. Much of the city’s progress on veteran homelessness was spurred by a federal initiative introduced 10 years ago by the Obama administration. Mayors across the country were encouraged to take on the challenge to end veteran homelessness, and both Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio signed on to the effort. In 2016, de Blasio created the Department of Veterans’ Services, which came out of an earlier task force and benefited from federal resources for homeless veterans.

That coordinated effort of federal and local action with targeted resources is what those involved credit for the city’s success. 

One of the major tools that the federal government contributed is the federal Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which provides homeless veterans with rental assistance and additional case management services through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Congress expanded funding for the vouchers, which were created in 1992, in 2007 as soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan “to a troubled U.S. economy,” according to a report from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

After de Blasio opted into the federal veterans homelessness initiative, New York City began to add its own resources.

The process starts with finding homeless veterans – which is why the city created its first list of them – and then works to get them housing and keeping them housed. Through the city’s Veteran Peer Coordinator Program, fellow veterans employed by the city can pair up with clients and serve as mentors throughout the process. That could include helping veterans get to apartment viewings and helping them gather the necessary financial documents to apply for an apartment.

"It's a population that people care about. Whereas they might not care about homeless people in general." - Tori Lyon, Jericho Project CEO

“Just having an apartment listing in New York City doesn’t mean you’re going to get the apartment,” said Nicole Branca, assistant commissioner for housing and support services at the city’s veterans agency. “So (the Veteran Peer Coordinator program is) really about helping (mentors) make the case for the veteran, getting the apartment and then all the paperwork for both the landlord and the veteran.” In addition to federal rent assistance veterans at-risk of homelessness have easier access to a city-run rental assistance program.

Landlords have also been encouraged by city staffers to house veterans. City employees serve as a resource for any questions and guidance landlords may need while trying to find units for veterans. Once housed, those veterans have access to other services to help them stay housed, including mental health treatment and finding furniture.

“I think it’s both very individualized, but it’s also very coordinated,” said Tori Lyon, CEO of the Jericho Project,a nonprofit that provides supportive housing and runs programs to help homeless veterans find housing. “I think that’s what the city’s done a really good job at.”

Anddy Perdomo, director of veteran initiatives and AIDS supportive housing at Volunteers of America-Greater New York, also highlighted collaboration between the city and local nonprofits as a key to the city’s overall success. When agencies and nonprofits talk, they will often work together on specific cases to get housing for individual veterans sooner, she said.

Merely expanding this approach to homelessness overall may not work without the federal backing. While President Donald Trump has lambasted cities such as New York City and Los Angeles for failing to solve homelessness, his latest budget doesn’t offer new funding for homeless housing or services, plus it slashes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s funding by 15%. However, his budget would keep funding consistent for federal vouchers for veterans.

Helping veterans has often garnered bipartisan support, whereas the homeless in general may not earn the same sympathy. “It’s a population that people care about,” Lyon said. “Whereas they might not care about homeless people in general, but they tend to care about veterans – which is kind of a cynical thing to say.”

Targeting smaller populations like veterans may also be more manageable than trying to tackle the larger homelessness problem. When veteran homelessness peaked in 2011, veterans made up only 9% of the homeless population in New York City. Similar strategies could be useful for targeting other smaller populations, such as homeless youth. And the city’s approach has led to more progress compared with the rest of the country. New York City has reduced overall veteran homelessness by 85% since 2011, while veteran homelessness has decreased by 43% nationally.

The city has already replicated some practices used with veterans in its homeless outreach work. The peer-to-peer program, which pairs veterans with mentors, has been modeled by other city agencies tackling homelessness, and the list of homeless veterans has been expanded to all homeless New Yorkers who the city can identify.

Still, some advocates for veterans stress that the city should not get too comfortable declaring success on homelessness. “It gives a slight misdirection in efforts when someone is given the kind of outlook that it’s been defeated,” said James Fitzgerald, deputy director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group for veterans. The number of homeless veterans has ticked up slightly since 2017, according to federal data, with 684 veterans found to be unhoused last year. 

Lyon agreed that city’s work wasn’t done, saying that the city’s task force for homeless veterans continues to meet monthly. “We haven’t really taken our eye off the ball in that sense,” she said.

Correction: The Jericho Project provides supportive housing for veterans. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nonprofit's services.

This article is part of our For The Record series, examining the leading mayoral contenders' professional records. You can read the rest of the series here