Summer 2013
Issue Map
The Public Manager

Partnering for Performance at HUD and VA

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Collaboration is not always easy but the benefits and potential force multipliers are well worth the effort. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are in robust collaboration to achieve a daring administration goal to end veteran homelessness across the nation by 2015.

Each agency's success in achieving this audacious goal clearly depends on close and effective collaboration with the other. To be clear, the joint agency collaboration, like any meaningful partnership, must go beyond meeting together and talking about partnering.


The collaboration begins at the very top with VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan committing to end veteran homelessness by 2015. They charged their staff to assess how the two agencies could better work together to achieve this goal. This unprecedented interagency meeting of the minds goes far beyond Washington, D.C. HUD and VA staff throughout the nation work with local governments, public housing agencies, VA medical centers and community-based clinics, and local Continuum of Care systems to house homeless veterans as quickly as possible.

Different Data, Different Analytics

The genesis of this journey to end veteran homeless was a joint decision about how to use applicable data to measure performance. Each agency had different data and different ways to collect it. These approaches prevented us from agreeing on even the size of the problem. The two agencies agreed upon a single method to enumerate and track veteran homelessness over time and to report to Congress as one voice.

Today, we use HUD's point-in-time count, which is used by virtually all communities across the country, to measure the scale of their homeless challenge. VA ensured that its local offices and external partners were part of this process, and now VA employees join HUD employees to supplement the local communities' enumeration efforts.

As we identify weaknesses, we work together to resolve the issues. For instance, a portion of all communities only count persons living on the streets every other year. HUD and VA recently visited with the largest of these communities to assess how an annual enumeration could take place.

Beyond agreeing to the size of the problem, a key ingredient for ending veteran homelessness is to ensure the housing and service resources that veterans need to exit homelessness actually exist. One of the best by-products of HUD and VA's longstanding partnership was the creation of a jointly developed housing and services program for homeless veterans, called the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. It is the only federal assistance program jointly administered by two federal departments. HUD provides the housing resources for this program and VA brings case management and healthcare.

With the goal to end veteran homelessness set, the two agencies re-assessed the program and determined that it needed to better target the most needy homeless veterans, those who have been living on the streets the longest. Research shows that the cost to the community for a homeless person to live on the streets for one year can be very expensive. It can cost as much as or more than $40,000 per person per year as these individuals cycle through jails, hospitals, and emergency shelters, none of which are designed to solve homelessness.

Recognizing the high public cost of having veterans living on the streets and in shelters for extended periods of time—and recognizing the moral cost—our agencies established increasing benchmarks (currently 65 percent) for the percentage of VASH resources that would go to the chronically homeless. We also agreed that the allocations of HUD-VASH vouchers be made depending primarily on which communities had the highest prevalence of homeless veterans and which communities house the veterans expeditiously. HUD and VA regularly reassess how to further improve the use of the program to reduce veteran homelessness.

An outside not-for-profit organization, Community Solutions, observed local implementation problems of HUD-VASH in various communities. Community Solutions and a partner, Rapid Results Institute, approached HUD and VA and proposed to initiate "boot camps" to help local stakeholders critically assess their current HUD-VASH efforts and commit to improve the targeting and speed with which veterans are housed in very specific and measureable terms within 100 days.

The two departments readily welcomed the offer and now jointly convene multi-day boot camps nationwide with these not-for-profit partners, strategically targeting cities with large homeless veteran populations and challenges in readily housing veterans. The initial results are so impressive that HUD, in collaboration with VA, is supporting similar boot camps with these outside partners. Another example of HUD-VASH collaboration is that HUD and VA jointly fund research to track the outcomes of participants to assess the long-term effectiveness of the program.

Differences Appreciated, Consensus Achieved

Another key collaboration tool has been HUDStat. Donovan invited VA leadership and staff to participate in HUD's internal HUDStat process to end veteran homelessness, quarterly reviews to drive performance improvement on priority goals. To prepare for these top-level sessions, HUD and VA staff work together to identify issues and propose solutions. The morning after the first meeting Donovan instructed staff to ensure that future sessions not be a "dog and pony show." He and the VA deputy secretary challenged staff to bring forward difficult, unresolved issues rather than touting successes."

Since then, these sessions have been used to confront, at times, very difficult issues and to resolve them, including speeding up the rate at which veterans are housed, and targeting HUD-VASH vouchers to those most in need.

One of the most complex and ongoing challenges is recognizing and appreciating differences between the agencies' mission, assets, cultures, and processes when seeking to achieve consensus after disagreements arise. And they do! Establishing and maintaining mutual trust and having a long-term view are essential to conflict resolution. Keeping the mission at the forefront and the egos in the background can be difficult. Participants have learned to respect differing opinions and to trust that whatever we work out together will be more powerful and successful in the long run.

We frequently conduct joint field visits to targeted communities. Recently, senior leadership from both agencies traveled together to Los Angeles to assess and help address difficult community challenges. This particular session was convened by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, of which VA and HUD are members, and included headquarters and field staff from HUD and VA as well a wide array of local stakeholders. We worked together to assess how federal agencies and local agencies could be more effective in reducing veteran homelessness in this city, which has the largest number of homeless veterans, at over 6,300.


Prevention Demonstration

Another focus of our collaboration is our work to prevent veteran homelessness. With the support from the Department of Labor, we jointly administer a congressional initiative called the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration. Together, we assist recently returned veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations who are at high risk of homelessness and will apply lessons learned to programs within our respective agencies.

The departments' collaboration on Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program also resulted in better programs and policies. This Recovery Act program was administered by HUD from 2009 to 2012. The program could be used to both prevent homelessness for low-income persons and to rapidly re-house persons who became homeless.

As HUD implemented the program, it shared its experiences and findings with VA, which was interested in developing a similar program for veterans. Because of that collaboration, VA was able to take the lessons learned from HUD and quickly move out its program, Supportive Services for Veterans and Families. To further the collaboration, HUD staff assisted in reviewing applications for this VA program.

Results Speak

The result of our collaboration? We and our many partners have been able to decrease veteran homelessness by 18 percent since 2010, a period when the economy and the unemployment rate for veterans was bleak. During the most recent reporting period, 2011-2012, veteran homelessness was reduced by 7 percent.

In recently reviewing the data together more closely, we found that most of that reduction came from veterans in shelters and not from the streets. As a result, we are now focusing our joint efforts on how to collaborate with our local partners to make progress on the streets, with an eye on the goal of ending veteran homelessness by December 2015.

About the Author

Mark Johnston is HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for special needs assistance programs.

About the Author

Susan Angell is executive director for Veterans Homeless Initiatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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