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How Data Visualization Helped Reduce Veteran Homelessness

The Department of Veterans Affairs leveraged data visualization and screening tools to house more than 40,000 veterans in 2022.

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These Tools are Helping VA Reduce Veteran Homelessness
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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a quote from VA Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs leveraged data visualization and a new screening tool to house more than 40,000 veterans in 2022, exceeding its goal by 6.3% and supporting President Joe Biden’s new strategic plan.

“Over 40,000 veterans whom we have housed, have been placed into permanent housing. This is not an interim stage in the journey that we’re talking about. Transitional housing is often a stabilizing move you can make to accommodations that are not considered permanent housing for a lot of reasons. That’s not what we’re declaring success by any means. The endpoint defines permanent housing as a major marker of stability for that veteran and maximizes their chances of thriving into the future,” Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said during a media briefing Thursday.

The agency expects data visualization and good data management practices to continue to improve outcomes in 2023, according to the Veterans Health Administration’s Homeless Programs Office Director of Business Operations Jill Albanese.

“One of the lessons that we learned through this process was the importance of making sure that folks had access to the data that they needed, and that it was easy for folks to understand and use,” Albanese told GovCIO Media & Research during a media roundtable Wednesday. “We took some time at the beginning of this initiative to make sure that all the medical centers and community providers had access to really good data and that it was useful to them.”

President Biden’s Dec. 2022 Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness outlines a roadmap for federal action to deliver resources and guidance to build effective, lasting systems to end homelessness. The four-pronged plan relies on a collaborative, evidence-based approach to prevent, respond and house Americans, including:

  • Ensure federal efforts to prevent and end homelessness promote equity and equitable outcomes
  • Promote inclusive decision-making and authentic collaboration
  • Increase access to federal housing and homelessness funding for American Indian and Alaska Native communities living on and off tribal lands
  • Examine federal policies and practices that may have created and perpetuated racial and other disparities among people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

The plan’s goal is to reduce all homelessness by 25% by 2025.

VA is honing in on data transparency to drive better decision-making around housing efforts. Albanese said the agency created a 38k dashboard to provide insight into how many veterans each VA site housed in each program and how many veterans were in medical center catchment areas but not yet housed.

“Those were the types of things that were extremely helpful to the field,” she said. “This was client level data so they could actually dig in and see: ‘who is this veteran? Where’s this veteran’s last location? How do we get this person housed?’ So, it gave the detail that is needed to make sure that folks had this valuable information in front of them. And again, having that visual dashboard was incredibly helpful.”

VA also has a robust Homelessness Prevention Program to aid veterans who are at risk of homelessness. As part of the program, VA developed the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Homelessness Prevention Screening Tool to help identify veterans at risk of homelessness.

“As part of our efforts to mitigate some of the situations during the pandemic, we were very proactive in reaching out to veterans who were at risk of homelessness… to offer them rental assistance before they became homeless,” Albanese said. “We also developed a screening tool to make sure that we were targeting that assistance where it really needed to be.”

SSVF aligns with Housing First practices to ensure client choice and service orientation, respond to housing crises using trauma-informed, crisis-oriented interventions and deliver services as-needed in a progressive, individualized manner. After the initial screening, the tool prioritizes veterans by risk level and chance of prolonged homelessness to improve fund and service allocation.

“There are thousands of formerly homeless veterans who are going to sleep tonight in good, safe, stable homes — and there’s nothing more important than that,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a Jan. 26 press release. “This is great progress, but it’s just the beginning: we at VA will not rest until the phrase ‘homeless Veteran’ is a thing of the past.”

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