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Homeless vets in rural areas lack options, advocates say

Apr. 11, 2014 - 12:08PM   |  
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Housing advocates worry that veterans in rural America may be getting left behind in the national push to end homelessness.

A new report released by the Housing Assistance Council this week notes that rural veterans face a different range of challenges from their urban counterparts, and that finding and aiding those at-risk veterans will require new effort from public and private agencies.

“It’s a problem of geographic isolation,” said Eric Oberdorfer, research associate at the council. “Because many live far away from [Veterans Affairs Department] offices and other resources, they can’t access them, or they might not even be aware that programs exist.”

According to the Housing and Urban Development Department’s annual point-in-time count released earlier this year, the number of homeless veterans across the country dropped to 57,849 in January 2013. White House officials have set a goal of ending homelessness across the country by the end of 2015.

Already, officials in Phoenix and Salt Lake City have announced they’ve effectively ended chronic homelessness among their veterans population, and other major metropolitan areas have hinted they could do so in coming months.

But the HAC report notes that declaring victory in rural areas is much more difficult. In many towns far from urban centers, housing options are sparse.

And aging veterans — the median age for veterans in rural region is 18 years older than in urban areas — face challenges in paying for property upkeep and modernization, which can force them into substandard living conditions.

Oberdorfer noted that VA officials have made a range of new services and grants available in recent years, but not all of them reach rural areas as well as they do city centers.

For example, officials have issued nearly 60,000 Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers in the last five years, to help provide stable housing for at-risk veterans and their families.

But Oberdorfer said only about 3 percent of those vouchers have be allocated to VA medical centers in rural regions. Rules for the vouchers stipulate that veterans must apply them toward housing “within a reasonable distance from a VA facility” so case managers can provide assistance and oversight.

VA has increased funding for rural outreach efforts in recent years, and launched new homeless counting efforts in rural Mississippi and Oregon earlier this year. Officials hope that will help better track the success of housing efforts and the differences in the challenges for those regions.

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