U.S. Homeless Veteran Population Decreases Since 2009, but Female Homeless Veterans More Than Doubled

(May 2012) The number of homeless veterans in the United States has declined by 11 percent since 2009, from 75,600 in 2009 to 67,500 in 2011. However, the total homeless population only decreased by 1 percent during the same period, from 643,000 to 636,000, according to the January 2012 report on the state of homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (the Alliance).1

The majority of homeless people live in shelters or transitional housing units, but 38 percent of the homeless are unsheltered: living on the streets, in cars, in abandoned properties, and in other areas not meant for human habitation. The Alliance analyzed the 2011 point-in-time count (a census of people sleeping in emergency shelters, in transitional housing units, and on the streets) and found an incidence of 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. But compared with the overall population, the incidence of homelessness among veterans is greater: 31 homeless people per 10,000 veterans.

Peter Witte, primary author of the report, said that he expects the decrease in the homeless veteran population to continue over time, due to a few key factors. In 2011, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) launched the Homeless Veterans Initiative—an $800 million commitment to prevent and end homelessness among veterans. In 2009, President Obama and the VA pledged a federal effort to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and the VA says they are on track to meet that goal. The VA says that they are concentrating on prevention efforts for veterans and are seeking to significantly increase places that provide medical services.2

Pete Dougherty, acting executive director of the VA’s homeless program, said that their goal is to bring down the number of homeless vets to “59,000 or less this year and 35,000 or less next year.” The two largest programs to house homeless veterans are the VA Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem program, providing transitional housing and supportive services; and HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), a joint program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the VA, offering permanent supportive housing.3

Sheltered Homeless Veterans

Before 2009, the VA and HUD had been conducting separate counts of the homeless veteran population. Now both organizations use the HUD count as the definitive source of data on homeless veterans. Point-in-time counts can be tricky, with variations in methodologies across and within communities, but “we have a better understanding of the [veteran homeless] population than we have in the past,” said Witte.

Sheltered homeless veterans are predominantly white and in the 31-61 age group, overwhelmingly male (92 percent), and have a 50/50 chance of living with a disability (see Table 1). About 145,000 veterans have spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. Although homeless veterans represent a relatively small share of the total veteran population, an impoverished veteran has a 1-in-9 chance of becoming homeless.4

Table 1

Demographic Characteristics of Sheltered Homeless Veterans, 2010 (Percent)

Female 8.0
Male 92.0
White, non-Hispanic 52.1
White, Hispanic 5.1
Black 35.1
Asian 0.5
American Indian or Alaska Native 2.5
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander 0.4
Several races 4.4
18-30 8.8
31-50 41.2
51-61 41.3
62 and older 8.6
Yes 50.5
No 49.6

Source: Homeless Management Information Systems data, 2010; and Continuum of Care Point-in-Time Counts, January 2010.

Female Veterans

Although women represent only 8 percent of the sheltered veteran population, they are twice as likely to be homeless compared to female nonveterans in the United States.5 While data on homeless female veterans are limited, there were an estimated 1,400 homeless female vets in 2006 and 3,300 in 2011.6 Dougherty said that female veterans who are at risk for homelessness are generally younger and more likely to have resided in prior housing than their male counterparts.

Because women are serving in the military in increasing numbers, experts estimate that by 2018, 10 percent of the veteran population will be female. According to a VA study of nearly 200 women in Los Angeles, unemployment, disability, and unmarried status were among the strongest predictors of homelessness for female veterans.7 Female veterans are at a greater risk of entering the shelter system, said Witte, probably due to these factors.

Twenty-eight percent of women in the HUD-VASH program have a child living with them, Dougherty noted. A recent report by the VA’s Inspector General revealed that some homeless women were concerned for their safety at shelters—preferring even to remain on the streets rather than risk sleeping in a bedroom without locks or having to share a common bathroom with male residents.8 Transitional housing for women with children is scarce, a significant barrier to female veterans who are single mothers. Limited housing for these women and their children puts them at continued risk for homelessness.

Demographic Drivers

The largest demographic change since 2009, the Alliance report noted, was the increase in the number of people who were living “doubled up”—with family or friends—before entering the shelter system. This population increased from 6.0 million in 2009 to 6.8 million in 2010. More than a third of sheltered veterans were doubled up prior to becoming homeless (see Table 2).

Table 2

Prior Living Situations to Shelter Entry, 2010 (Percent)

  Homeless Shelter Users Sheltered Veterans
Doubled up 30 38
Jail, prison, or juvenile detention 5 8.4
Medical facility 6.5 20

Notes: “Doubled up” refers to living with friends or family due to economic need. Medical facility includes substance abuse treatment centers/detox, hospital, or psychiatric facility.
Sources: Homeless Management Information Systems data, 2010; and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America 2012.

More than half of homeless veterans have a disability, underscoring the importance of health insurance that protects this already vulnerable population from increased risk of homelessness. Veterans can qualify for VA health care benefits, but their family members can only be covered under certain circumstances.9 Many veterans are low income, said Dougherty, and would have difficulty paying for health insurance for their families.

According to the VA, nearly 13,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been identified as homeless during the past five years. In 2011, 9 percent of the overall homeless population were veterans of these wars.10 That number is growing as an additional 1 million service members are due to return home in the next few years. But outreach and prevention efforts are also increasing. “Homelessness is a tragedy, but after coming back from war…we are trying to keep veterans out of the homeless condition in the first place,” said Dougherty.

Tyjen Tsai is a writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America 2012 (Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012).
  2. United States Department of Veteran Affairs, “Homeless Veterans: About the Initiative,” accessed on April 17, 2012.
  3. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), Veteran Homelessness: A Supplemental Report to the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (Washington, DC: HUD and VA, 2011).
  4. National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America 2012.
  5. HUD and VA, Veteran Homelessness.
  6. Daniel Bertoni, Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2011), accessed on April 6, 2012.
  7. VA, Women’s Health Research at VA Fact Sheet (March 2012).
  8. VA Office of Inspector General, Veterans Health Administration: Audit of the Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, March 12, 2012.
  9. United States Department of Veteran Affairs, “Health Benefits,” accessed on May 15, 2012.
  10. VA, VA Programs for Homeless Veterans Fact Sheet (September 2011).