Virginia ended veteran homelessness yesterday. Why not just end homelessness?

Yesterday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia will become the first state to meet federal criteria for having ended homelessness (Las Vegas, Nevada; Mobile, Alabama; and Syracuse, Schenectady and Troy, New York have previously adopted the policy). Following his announcement, Virginia has 90 days to find housing for all homeless veterans — save for those who decline the offer — and must maintain more available housing units than there are identified veterans who have no place to live.

As of 2014, there were nearly 50,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Now, the ones in Virginia will all have a place to stay.

It was a great way for the state to celebrate veterans day, and the policy drew bipartisan praise — and what little criticism Republicans could muster suggested that McAuliffe actually hadn’t done enough for veterans, with House Majority Leader Kirk Cox saying in a statement that, “Our battle isn’t won until every veteran has the education, health care, job and home they deserve.” As one would expect, it’s really difficult to find anyone who would actively argue that any veteran should be homeless. Especially if the solution is as simple as just giving them a home.

Homeless veteran, via Flickr

Homeless veteran, via Flickr

But why stop at veterans? While I understand the argument that veterans are especially deserving of our respect and aid given their service to the country — we owe them more because we asked more of them — that by itself doesn’t explain why they should be moved from the ranks of the homeless to the housed and not their non-veteran counterparts. It may explain why we put them first in line, but it doesn’t explain why we should cut the line off.

Because one of the things we know about homelessness is that you don’t need a moral argument to make the case for ending it. Study after study has shown that simply giving homeless people housing — regardless of their resume — saves lives and saves the government money. Simply providing housing for the homeless makes them less likely to get sick or injured — incurring health care costs that they can’t pay, and therefore pass on to the state — and it makes them less likely to interact with the criminal justice system. As Mother Jones’s Gabrielle Canon explained, reporting on a study published earlier this year that provided housing to homeless people in Santa Clara, California:

They found that much of the public costs of homelessness stemmed from a small segment of this population who were persistently homeless, around 2,800 people. Close to half of all county expenditures were spent on just five percent of the homeless population, who came into frequent contact with police, hospitals, and other service agencies, racking up an average of $100,000 in costs per person annually. Those costs quickly add up—overall, Santa Clara communities spend $520 million in homeless services every year.

…The study looked at more than 400 of these housing recipients, a fifth of whom were part of the most expensive cohort. Before receiving housing, they each averaged nearly $62,500 in public costs annually. Housing them cost less than $20,000 per person—an annual savings of more than $42,000.

So, sure, ending veteran homelessness is great, and I understand why it’s a priority: It’s downright embarrassing that we’ve let tens of thousands of people who volunteered to serve our country find themselves out on the street now that they’re home. But to end the discussion there, wipe our hands and pat ourselves on the back for doing a good deed would be to ignore the moral, social and economic arguments for extending the same help to everyone who needs it.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • SkippyFlipjack

    One side benefit of this law is that you will be able to be pretty sure that every homeless guy in Virginia holding a sign that says “Vietnam vet” is making that part up.

  • mf_roe

    The surest way to
    work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they
    will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with
    good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior
    “righteous indignation” — this is the height of psychological luxury,
    the most delicious of moral treats.

    — Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow (1921), thanks to Laird Wilcox, ed, “The Degeneration of Belief”

  • nicho

    I am disturbed that we are developing a “warrior” class in the US, whereby people who volunteer to engage in corporate wars are treated vastly differently than the rest of the population. If we truly have “warriors,” then we have regressed to a primitive state.

  • mf_roe

    The unending pandering on both sides of the political spectrum regarding the Divinity of “Veterans” is disgusting. Veterans are just the same as any other large segment of the population, some are good people some aren’t. By any honest accounting veterans have suffered no more and no less than the average citizen in terms of governance of our country.
    I agree completely with the idea that if ALL were treated humanely then “Vets” would need no special treatment.

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