Despite national trend, more veterans homeless in Pennsylvania

The number of homeless veterans in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed over the last four years, according to estimates released last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The state’s homeless veteran population increased 46 percent from 2009 to 2013. In contrast, the number of homeless vets dipped nationwide by 24 percent over the same time period.

Of Pennsylvania’s 1,462 homeless veterans, 440 are living in Philadelphia, according to HUD.

Darryl Halsell is one of them. The U.S. Navy veteran from West Philly said he has been homeless since 2004 for myriad reasons: family problems, former drug and alcohol issues, and the lack of affordable housing in the city, to name a few. 

Likewise, there are many potential explanations for the rising number of homeless veterans in Pennsylvania. Halsell blames the trend on unemployment.

“Jobs would be the No. 1 thing,” he said. “A lot of vets here want to work. It’s hard to find work.”

Dennis Culhane, research director for the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans and a principal investigator for the HUD report, said that unemployment could indeed be a factor, especially in urban areas. Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in July.

“Philadelphia has had and continues to have a pretty high unemployment rate, particularly among minority communities and people with a high school education or less,” he said. “That is likely impacting the numbers in the Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of homeless vets since 2011, the earliest year for which data is available in HUD’s recent report. The federal government’s estimates were determined by a one-night count of homeless people done throughout the country in January.

Culhane also said that the large number of soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who have been released from prison, could be factors.

“It’s hard to pinpoint, exactly, which of these is driving any particular increase,” he said.

Government officials, academic researchers and advocates for the homeless also blamed state and federal budget cuts, which affected everything from job training programs to cash assistance.

Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program, which provided about $200 in monthly benefits to adults with disabilities, domestic violence survivors and recovering drug and alcohol addicts, was eliminated in 2012.

“Many of the people who served in the military … were not collecting veterans benefits and so they would collect General Assistance,” said Laura Weinbaum, a vice president of Philadelphia’s Project HOME, which aids the homeless.

There may be a silver lining in these statistics. Some experts said that the numbers could be up, in part, because the government has done a better job of counting Pennsylvania’s homeless population in recent years.

Roberta Cancellier, a deputy director in Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing, said that is due to the fact that officials have improved their questionnaire for the annual homeless count. She also said more services are now available for homeless vets.

“The [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs] opened new beds in what they call a ‘safe haven’ for veterans,” she said. “Because of the VA’s investment in these resources, we may be finding and able to count more veterans.”

Tim Meserve, executive director of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Center, agrees that the rising numbers are partly attributable to the better data. His nonprofit has teamed up with the federal government, city officials and other nonprofit organizations with the goal of ending veteran homelessness in Philadelphia by the end of 2015.

He doesn’t see the new estimates as a setback. In fact, he believes that Pennsylvania — and Philadelphia in particular — can learn something from the other parts of the country that have seen declines in homelessness among veterans.

“I was a naysayer not very long ago,” he said of his group’s lofty goal. “But there are a lot of resources that are brought to the table, and if we use them efficiently and effectively … we can do this.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.