Homeless veterans threatened by COVID-19 pandemic

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Contributed by National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

From a public health perspective, homelessness makes both individuals and veterans more vulnerable to highly communicable conditions like COVID-19. In Washington, DC, people experiencing homelessness made up four percent of the COVID-deaths as of April 26, but they comprise only one percent of the city’s population.

Veterans who are experiencing homelessness are also more likely to have chronic underlying health conditions, putting them at higher risk of complications if exposed to the virus.

Although we have asked the Veterans Administration, we’ve been unable to determine how many of the COVID-positive patients tested or treated, are experiencing homelessness.

We do know that in shelters across the country that have done testing, there is a high rate of asymptomatic transmission. Without this data, we cannot identify or address any racial disparities, or place-based challenges that may exist in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID, nor can we work toward solutions that equitably center the needs of veterans of color, and other vulnerable subpopulations.

The VA needs more testing for unsheltered veterans or those in transitional housing, particularly in congregate environments. The CDC has noted early testing of residents in congregate transitional housing is critical to reducing the rapid spread of the virus among a highly vulnerable population, with many asymptomatic carriers.

The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted veterans in a variety of ways, from making it harder for unsheltered veterans to find shelter and housing in some communities, to causing increased difficulties in accessing supportive services and utilizing HUD-VASH vouchers, to creating new mental health challenges for veterans feeling isolated in housing.

There are already organizations that are committed to providing vital services on a day to day basis. However, even they face pandemic-related challenges, from a PPE and disinfectant shortage, to identifying innovative ways to safely deliver services, and construction stoppages slowing down affordable housing development for veterans. Providing services to a highly vulnerable population in the midst of a pandemic is no easy feat. Support your local service providers if you are able.

The road to recovery will be a long one for veterans experiencing homelessness.

Congress recently passed legislation, from which the VA designated additional funding to serve homeless veterans. This was a step in the right direction, to avoid widespread transmission that could overwhelm VHA’s inpatient hospital capacity, but more is needed.

Avoiding a major increase in homelessness will require significant investment in programs to serve homeless veterans, affordable housing, and long-term solutions such as employment and homelessness prevention services.

Ask your local Congressional delegation to support full funding to care for veterans experiencing homelessness in the next round of CARES legislation moving through the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

Visit www.nchv.org to learn more about the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

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