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RAND Study: Unhoused Veterans Services Need to Be Tailored

Year-long study finds that few able to obtain permanent housing

By Sam Catanzaro

A year-long study of a group of military veterans experiencing homelessness in West Los Angeles found that few were able to obtain permanent housing over the course of the period, even though they lived near the region’s major VA service center.

The project led by researchers from the nonprofit RAND Corporation and the University of Southern California found that although the veterans wanted to get off the streets, the housing options available to them frequently did not meet their desire for autonomy, safety, security and privacy.

According to the study, participants’ past experiences convinced them there were few options and little affordable housing available to veterans.

“Veterans are a priority population who generally have access to services, but few of those we followed found permanent housing,” said Sarah Hunter, the report’s lead author and director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles. 

The current estimate of veterans experiencing homelessness in L.A County is 3,902, the study’s authors noted. 

According to RAND, the study is the first to systematically track a group of homeless veterans in Los Angeles to obtain information about their housing, health and service experiences. The study followed a “diverse” group of 26 homeless veterans in West Los Angeles over 12 months, aiming to interview them monthly. Some of the veterans were recruited from a large homeless encampment adjacent to the campus of the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, while the others lived just a few miles away. It should be noted that since the study concluded, over 50 homeless veterans who were living at the encampment have been transitioned into housing, treatment and other programs. 

Past mental and physical health problems were relatively common among the study participants, as was past victimization. In addition, more than half of the study group had been homeless for more than three years.

Over the course of the year, 17 of the 26 veterans in the study received some kind of stable housing, but only three obtained permanent housing. According to RAND, once the veterans became stably housed, their mental health, quality of life and social support improved and they reduced use of costly services such as emergency room visits and hospital stays.

“Housing was a priority for the people we studied, but often they did not like the options available to them,” Hunter said. “They wanted a safe and private place that respects their autonomy. Housing options need to be aligned with veterans’ housing preferences. If housing opportunities do not respect their needs, they will say, ‘Screw this, I will go pitch a tent in the park.’ ”

In addition, some of the veterans in the study were given smartphones, which researchers say may be a good tool to engage with unhoused veterans and connect them with services.

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