Many veterans struggle with homelessness; these programs are helping

Michael Jackson has fought two battles in his life. The first was when he served a two-year stint in the Army during the Vietnam War. The second was years later, when he was released from a Detroit prison after serving a three-year sentence for felonious assault and had no place of his own.

To make matters more complicated, Jackson requires kidney dialysis three days a week, so finding a place to live was critical.

Unlike other veterans living in Michigan and the Lakeshore, Jackson was fortunate. A United Way of the Lakeshore nonprofit, Fresh Coast Alliance, made it possible for Jackson to find a place to call home in Muskegon.

“They opened other doors for me,” Jackson says of Fresh Coast, a Muskegon-based ministry that provides holistic and individualized support for men and women, including but not limited to veterans, who have a criminal history and/or substance abuse.

“I did not want to go to a mission or live on the street since I have kidney disease. Getting infected could kill me.”

There are many reasons veterans are threatened with homelessness. A recently released United Way study explains why Michigan veterans are yoked with homelessness or are on the threshold of living on the streets. Among those reasons, the study shows they struggle to afford the basic costs of housing, child care, health care, transportation, or a cellphone.

Real veterans with real challenges

The Michigan Association of United Ways and its research partner, United For ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), have learned 22% of veterans living in owner-occupied housing were below the ALICE Threshold, the minimum income level necessary for the survival of a household. Veterans who are housing cost burdened (paying more than 35% of their income on rent or mortgage plus utilities, taxes, and insurance) are more likely to experience housing insecurity and are therefore at greater risk of becoming homeless.
Michael Jackson's military photo
Closer to home, these statistics represent real veterans with real challenges.

Michael Baauw sees a growing number of military veterans in Muskegon County seeking help to keep a roof over their heads.

“More people are coming for emergency relief,” says Baauw, Muskegon County Veterans Affairs (VA) director and a former combat veteran. “Gas and food cost more, rents are going up, and their income is not going up, and if it is going up, it’s not at the same rate as inflation.”

It’s wrenching to know there are veterans who served their country that don’t have a place to live, making the Lakeshore Housing Alliance (LHA), a program of United Way, all the more vital.

“The LHA prioritizes veterans and people experiencing chronic homelessness for permanent supportive housing resources in Ottawa County,” says Lyn Raymond, director of the Lakeshore Housing Alliance.

“LHA leadership meets with several organizations on a monthly basis to identify resources for veterans in a housing crisis. United Way also supports efforts to address homelessness in Allegan County through the Allegan County Local Planning Body.”

Racial disparities

It’s a tougher row to hoe for veterans of color.

“By percentage, Black veterans, those of two or more races, and American Indian/Alaska Native veterans faced higher rates of financial hardship as a result of persistent racism, discrimination, and systemic barriers that limit these veterans’ access to resources and opportunities for financial stability,” says Christine Robere, president and CEO for United Way of the Lakeshore.

According to the ALICE report, these disparities of financial hardship are mirrored in the general population, but for veterans, they are an extension of the unequal distribution of the housing, training, and employment protections promised in the post-World War II G.I. Bill.

In Michigan, 33% of Michigan’s veterans earning below the ALICE Threshold spent more than 35% of their income on a mortgage, utilities, tax, and insurance. That’s in comparison with 32% in Indiana and 33% in Ohio. And for renters, Michigan, at 57%, had one of the highest rates in the country for struggling veterans being rent burdened.

In addition, 16% of Michigan’s financially insecure veterans participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in comparison with 14% in Indiana and 8% in Ohio.

“While we don’t have this breakdown for just West Michigan, I believe it would be similar if not worse,” says Robere.

Why veterans struggle

It’s vital to understand why veterans are struggling to keep a roof over their heads before arriving at solutions to keep them from homelessness.

“Many younger veterans who are returning home from a combat zone struggle to find a job that is structured and equal in pay to what they earned in the armed forces,” says Robere. “While the job market is much better than a few years ago, housing is a challenge due to lack of inventory and increasing costs for rent or purchase.”

Other disquieting reasons for potential homelessness include mental health conditions and substance use disorder.

“Although many veterans are homeowners thanks to loan benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration, homeownership alone does not ensure financial stability,” says Robere. 

Some vets unaware of benefits

Some of the problems stem from veterans who are unaware of the benefits available to them, but even so, they do indeed meet specific stipulations for assistance. Veterans Affairs has HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers, and Volunteers of America (VOA) has homeless prevention and rapid rehousing programs.
Christine Robere
“For a variety of reasons, public assistance does not reach all people in households that are struggling,” says Robere.

“While most people in poverty are eligible, those in ALICE households often earn too much to qualify for assistance,” she adds. “In addition, income and asset limits for public assistance can create ‘benefits cliffs’ that limit economic mobility. For example, even though veterans living in households with income below the Federal Poverty Level should be covered by SNAP, only 25% of veterans in poverty (8,008), and a mere 13% of veterans in ALICE households (12,832), participated in this program in Michigan in 2019. This is an area that we continue to work on to encourage veterans to apply for the help that is available to them.” 

Disability compensation

VA provides disability compensation for an illness or injury that was caused by or became worse due to active military service. Benefits are based on the severity of the veteran’s service-connected disabilities — the more severe the disability, the higher the VA disability rating, up to a maximum of 100%.

Yet even with a 50% rating, which covers disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), impaired memory, and panic attacks, the amount of the disability benefits did not come close in 2019 to covering the cost of the ALICE Household Survival Budget anywhere in Michigan, according to Robere.

“For example, a veteran with a disability rating of 50% living with a spouse and a child received only $12,316 in 2019,” she says. “The actual cost of basic needs was several times that, with the average Household Survival Budget for a family of three ranging from nearly $41,000 to almost $62,000.”

That makes nonprofits like Fresh Coast Alliance essential to veterans like Jackson.

“They helped me to move into housing, and housing allowed me to save some money,” says Jackson.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.