National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
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Facts & Media > Background & Statistics
Background & Statistics

Background & Statistics

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Most Often Asked Questions Concerning Homeless Veterans

Who are homeless veterans?

The U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says homeless veterans are mostly males (2 % are females). The vast majority are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems. America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone.

How many homeless veterans are there?

Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by ... no one keeps national records on homeless veterans ... the VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And more than half a million experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless males who is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served our country ... now they need America to remember them.

Why are veterans homeless?

In addition to the complex set of factors affecting all homelessness … extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care … a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

A top priority is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment which is free of drugs and alcohol.

While "most homeless people are single, unaffiliated men … most housing money in existing federal homelessness programs, in contrast, is devoted to helping homeless families or homeless women with dependant children," according to "Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?" in Understanding Homelessness: New Policy and Research Perspectives, published by Fannie Mae Foundation in 1997.

Doesn’t the Department of Veterans Affairs take care of homeless veterans?

To a certain degree, yes. According to the VA, in the years since it "began responding to the special needs of homeless veterans, its homeless treatment and assistance network has developed into the nation’s largest provider of homeless services, serving more than 100,000 veterans annually."

With an estimated 500,000 veterans homeless at some time during the year, the VA reaches 20% of those in need ... leaving 400,000 veterans without supportive services.

Since 1987, VA’s programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with community service providers to help expand services to more homeless veterans. For more information about VA homeless veteran programs, go to

What services do veterans need?

Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing and nutritional meals; essential physical health care, substance abuse aftercare and mental health counseling; and personal development and empowerment. Veterans also need job assessment, training and placement assistance.

NCHV strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping veterans reach the point where they can obtain and sustain employment.

What seems to work best?

The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, "veterans helping veterans" groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves. Because government money for homeless veterans is currently limited and serves only one in 10 of those in need, it is critical that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities most Americans take for granted: housing, employment and health care.

There are about 200 community-based veteran organizations across the country that have demonstrated impressive success reaching homeless veterans. These groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with Federal, State, and local government agencies, other homeless providers, and veteran service organizations. Veterans who participate in these programs have a higher chance of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.

What can you do?

  • Determine the need in your community. Visit with homeless veteran providers. Contact your local mayor’s office for a list of providers.
  • Involve others. If you are not already part of an organization, pull together a few people who might be interested in attacking this issue.
  • Participate in local homeless coalitions. Chances are there is one in your community. If not, this may be the time to start bringing people together around this critical need.
  • Send a financial donation to your local homeless veteran provider.
  • Contact your elected officials, and discuss what is being done in your community for homeless veterans.

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Homeless Veteran Fact Sheet


What is the definition of homeless?
PL100-77 signed into law on July 22, 1987 known as the "McKinney Act" provided a definition of homelessness that is commonly used because it controls the federal funding streams.
Excerpt from PL100-77: Sec. 11302. General definition of homeless individual
For purposes of this chapter, the term 'homeless' or 'homeless individual or homeless person' includes -
(1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and (2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is -
(A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
(B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
(C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Who is a veteran?
In general, most organizations use the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) eligibility criteria to determine which veterans can access services. Eligibility for VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions. Benefits vary according to factors connected with type and length of military service. To see details of eligibility criteria for VA compensation and benefits, view the current benefits manual at:

Demographics of homeless veterans
"The Forgotten Americans-Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve" -- released Dec. 8, 1999, by the Interagency Council on the Homeless -- is the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), which was completed in 1996 and updated three years later. You can visit and download the NSHAPC reports from there.

Veteran Specific Highlights:
23% of homeless population are veterans
33% of male homeless population are veterans
47% Vietnam Era
17% post Vietnam
15% pre Vietnam
67% served three or more years
33% stationed in war zone
25% have used VA Homeless Services
85% completed high school/GED compared to 56% of non-veterans
89% received Honorable Discharge
79% reside in central cities
16% reside in suburban areas
5% reside in rural areas
76% experience alcohol, drug, or mental health problems
46% white males compared to 34% non-veterans
46% age 45 or older compared to 20% non-veterans
Service needs:
45% help finding job
37% finding housing

How many homeless veterans are there?
Accurate numbers community-by-community is not available. Some communities do annual counts others do an estimate based on a variety of factors. Contact the closest Department of Veterans' Affairs Medical Center, Homeless Coordinator or the office of your mayor or other presiding government to get local information.

The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) done in 1996, projected that:

Each year, 2.3 million to 3.5 million people experience homelessness in America. By taking 23% of that range for veterans, that would indicate there are between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans who are homeless at some time during the year.

To get the full report "Helping America's Homeless," published by The Urban Institute Press in 2001, visit

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Incarcerated Veterans

In January 2000, The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a special report on incarcerated veterans. Following are highlights of the report: "Veterans in Prison or Jail."

Over 225,000 veterans held in Nation’s prisons or jails in 1998.

  • Among adult males in 1998, there were 937 incarcerated veterans per 100,000 veteran residents.
  • 1 in every 6 incarcerated veterans was not honorably discharged from the military.
  • About 20% of veterans in prison reported seeing combat duty during their military service.
  • In 1998, an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War veterans were held in State and Federal prisons.
  • Nearly 60% of incarcerated veterans had served in the Army.
  • Among state prisoners, over half (53%) of veterans were white non-hispanics, compared to nearly a third (31%) of non-veterans; Among Federal prisoners, the percentage of veterans who were white (50%) was nearly double that of non-veterans (26%).
  • Among State prisoners, the median age of veterans was 10 years older than other prison and jail inmates.
  • Among State prisoners, veterans (32%) were about 3 times more likely than non-veterans (11%) to have attended college.

Veterans are more likely than others to be in prison for a violent offense but less likely to be serving a sentence for drugs.

  • About 35% of veterans in State prison, compared to 20% of non-veterans, were convicted of homicide or sexual assault.
  • Veterans (30%) were more likely than other State prisoners (23%) to be first-time offenders.
  • Among violent State prisoners, the average sentence of veterans was 50 months longer than the average of non-veterans.
  • At year-end 1997, sex offenders accounted for 1 in 3 prisoners held in military correctional facilities.
  • Combat veterans were no more likely to be violent offenders than other veterans.

Veterans in State prison reported higher levels of alcohol abuse, lower levels of drug abuse, than other prisoners.

  • Veterans in State prison were less likely (26%) than other State prisoners (34%) to report having used drugs at the time of their offense.
  • Nearly 60% of veterans in State prison had driven drunk in the past, compared to 45% of other inmates.
  • About 70% of veterans, compared to 54% of other State prisoners, had been working full-time before arrest.
  • Incarcerated veterans were as likely as non-veterans to have been homeless when arrested.

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