Caritas of Austin Uses Multi-Solving and Non-Traditional Partnerships to Decrease Veteran Homelessness
There is a growing housing crisis in most communities across the U.S. There is a lack of affordable housing options, leading to increased homelessness, and the problem has heightened with high interest rates and low inventory levels we’ve seen throughout 2023. Finding affordable housing is especially difficult for low-income Americans, as well as people of color and other minority groups who have experienced systemic racism within our housing institutions. Although the G.I. Bill of Rights, signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, sought to address core social needs of U.S. veterans like unemployment, education, health care, and housing, Black veterans were mostly excluded from the homeownership support white veterans received. Homelessness in the U.S. has been on the rise since 2017; according to the January 2022 Point-In-Time Count, 582,462 people were experiencing homelessness in America, and 6% of those were veterans.
Interestingly, American veterans today are both more likely to own a home than other Americans and more likely to become homeless than their non-military counterparts. Higher rates of homeownership among veterans are due in part to veteran access to highly favorable home financing mechanisms (lower interest rates and down payments). However, veterans also face other challenges to stable housing, including higher rates of disability and related hardships, and lower levels of educational attainment (among younger veterans) associated with greater risk of negative employment shocks.
Caritas of Austin (Texas) has made huge strides in decreasing homelessness among Austin-area residents and has a Veterans Assistance Program that is focused on ending chronic homelessness for all veterans and their families. Monsignor Richard McCabe founded Caritas of Austin in 1964 with the belief that all people deserve to have their basic needs met. Even in its earliest days, this organization focused on ensuring people had a stable place to call home. Since its inception, Caritas of Austin has operated independently of any religious affiliation but has been generously supported by all faith groups over the past five decades. While the organization and services have grown tremendously, their core work to restore dignity, respect, and stability for people remains unchanged.
Homelessness Among Veterans
Veterans face higher risk of homelessness for many reasons, including increased vulnerability to physical and mental illness, suicide, and substance use disorders, as well as lack of support networks and social isolation (especially after discharge). Estimating the number of veterans who are unstably housed or unhoused altogether is difficult due to a lack of available data and/or data collected through point-in-time counts that have some limitations. However, studies have shown that veteran status significantly increases risk for homelessness (especially for Black and disabled veterans). The federal government acknowledges this challenge and even founded the National Center on Homelessness among veterans (NCHAV) in 2009 to address the problem. Thankfully, new point-in-time data show a decrease in veteran homelessness (there was an 11% decline from 2020-2022 alone), due in part to Biden’s (post-COVID) American Rescue Plan, as well as community-based organizations like Caritas of Austin.
How Caritas of Austin is Solving the Homeless Veterans Crisis
Caritas of Austin launched their Veterans Assistance Program in 2011 with the mission of preventing and ending homelessness for veterans and veteran families in Greater Austin (Texas). This was just two years after the founding of the NCHAV in 2009, and after an initial HUD report on veteran homelessness estimated just over 75,000 veterans were homeless, and approximately 12% of all people experiencing homelessness identified as a veteran. The Caritas of Austin Veterans Assistance Program was one of many concentrated efforts post-2009 to end veteran homelessness across the Nation. Notably, King County in Seattle was one of the first communities to put together some models around Supportive Services for Veterans and Families (SSVF), and served as a bit of a model for what eventually unfolded in Austin.
The Caritas Veterans Assistance Program is an income-based program with the goal to support veterans and their families to gain housing stability. The program is specifically designed for veterans and accepts anyone that has not been dishonorably discharged, even veterans who don’t qualify for other VA services. (Caritas of Austin has other housing programs—one without a specific audience and one that specifically serves youth.)
The program typically engages veterans throughout a 9-month period, although it can last as long as two years when participants are able to work up to paying 50% of their rent. Through the program, staff work with veterans and their families to provide housing search assistance and rental assistance. Importantly, the program also provides access to related supports, including connections for therapy for substance use, legal services, and case management (each client has a case manager). There is also a peer expert on substance use who was in the military for 20 years who provides a unique perspective and has relatable lived experience. The program team is made up primarily of veterans, with a few civilian staff members.
How Non-Traditional Partnerships Bolster the Caritas of Austin Veterans Assistance Program
Through strong collaboration with city leaders, the real estate community, and local service providers, Caritas of Austin is proud to partner with others to build a system and capacity for Austin to end chronic homelessness for all veterans and house veterans rapidly if they lose their housing. Caritas of Austin is a member of the Best Single Source Plus (BSS+)—a collaborative made up of eleven local nonprofit organizations who serve those who are unhoused or at risk of losing housing in the area, all of whom use a coordinated entry assessment. Anyone experiencing homelessness can be assessed through this common assessment used across the city—if someone calls Caritas of Austin looking for entry into their programming, the person has to be referred to an assessment site (authorized by the City of Austin to administer the coordinated entry assessment), where they gather initial information. Assessment data are entered into a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) leveraged across the city; this platform helps with care coordination and providing needed services.
Today, Caritas of Austin is part of a citywide collaborative that handles coordinated entry into their Veterans Assistance Program and other local programs, with the goal of ensuring they are serving the most vulnerable. This coordinated entry is an invaluable aspect of the program—all participating community organizations use the same initial assessment, and veterans are prioritized on a list from the most vulnerable to the least vulnerable. When someone is referred to Caritas, staff have to go find the person somewhere around the city, and having the right screening tool is a big asset. The coordinated entry is one way to avoid referring organizations from selecting people that have fewer high needs and could be perceived as “easier” to house, prompting a more equitable approach. Sometimes, people entering the program have been on the streets for years, and it can be hard to get them into housing; according to interviews with Caritas staff, every participant has been through a lot of trauma.
Multi-Solving for Homelessness and Other Related Conditions
Although Caritas of Austin administers a Housing First model, people come into the Veterans Assistance program with a lot of trauma, and much of the initial support the program provides isn’t directly related to housing. Early work is usually around simply getting the client a valid ID, a birth certificate, and other basic documentation support. After the program receives a referral through the common intake form and makes contact with the client, Caritas administers their own intake form to learn more about what’s needed; they start by asking the client where they want to live. This helps staff Identify other needs—often related to substance use and mental health problems. Clients work with an assigned case manager and a community housing specialist to find an available home that ideally fits with where they want to live, emphasizing the importance of client voice and choice throughout the rehousing and rehabilitation process.
The underlying principles of the Housing First model are harm reduction and housing first, and specifically not putting barriers in place to achieving stable housing—there is a “come as you are” norm that is established within the program. Clients do not need to be sober before moving into stable housing; staff engage clients around reducing substance use throughout the course of their engagement. There is substantial data to show that a housing first model reduces homelessness more than a housing ready model that requires participants “show they are worthy of housing.”
Importantly, all Caritas programming integrates non-housing supports that we know are needed to attain and retain housing stability. This includes education programs where people can learn life skills and financial literacy, employment services, behavioral health services (community-based counseling, etc.), peer support, food services (food pantry and community kitchens), health care access, and more. This well-rounded programming that starts with Housing First has huge impacts on the clients served and sets the stage for long-term success.
Caritas of Austin’s Key Takeaways for Other Communities
It’s important to acknowledge that while the primary goal is to end homelessness, often, it’s more about collaboration and creating system capacity to work with both traditional and non-traditional community partners.
Remember to develop time-sensitive programming as much as possible. Creating a system-wide capacity to address homelessness as soon as it happens is important. Homelessness should be rare, brief, and non-recurring and catch people before they get embedded in it
You have to have community buy in—people often vote on things that affect housing programming; NIMBYISM can be a problem.
Financially, it makes more sense to put people into supportive housing than it is to keep them on the streets where the cost burden goes to ERs, etc. (People can pay their taxes when they’re back in housing and supported.)
There is often stigma associated with clients they serve, so there is also a communications and myth-busting component to the work. The common misconception is that people don’t want to be housed, or that they’re only homeless because of their substance use. Often it’s the other way around—substance use started to cope with homelessness.
It’s important to emphasize that homelessness could happen to anyone. Many people are 1-2 lost paychecks away from being unhoused.
Stop offering people units and housing that is not in alignment with what would be acceptable by other people.
Caritas has started to build their own housing developments where possible, which increases livable wages, collaboration, and community buy-in.