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Homeless Veterans: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Collaboration and Performance Measurement Procedures

GAO-20-428 Published: May 14, 2020. Publicly Released: May 14, 2020.
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Fast Facts

About 37,000 veterans were homeless in the U.S. in 2019. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies funded programs through local service providers to help homeless veterans find jobs and affordable housing.

But a VA case manager shortage, housing costs and availability, and other challenges may limit the number of veterans these programs can serve. Some of the service providers told us that additional guidance from VA could help them collaborate more effectively at the local level.

Our recommendations to the agencies include one for VA to give service providers more information—e.g., best practices—on collaboration.

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What GAO Found

The Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Labor (DOL) provide programs aimed at assisting homeless veterans. Local VA staff and service providers—who receive grants from federal agencies—provide services to homeless veterans within their communities. In interviews with GAO, they cited challenges in implementing selected programs:

  • Staffing shortages. Shortages in VA case managers may limit the number of veterans they are able to serve.
  • Housing cost and availability. High housing costs and limited stock make it difficult to find affordable housing for homeless veterans.
  • Transportation limitations . Service providers may cover large geographic areas and limited public transportation strains their ability to provide services.

Steps that VA and other agencies are taking to address these challenges include contracting out for services to address limited staffing, offering rental subsidies for very low-income veterans, and working with community partners to assist with transportation.

Two key federal collaboration mechanisms to address veteran homelessness are a U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) working group to coordinate agencies at the national level and a HUD initiative that coordinates stakeholders at the local level. Both efforts incorporate many leading practices for effective interagency collaboration identified by GAO in prior work. However, local VA staff and service providers stated that they would like additional information—such as on best practices—from VA on how to collaborate more effectively at the local level. While VA has issued some broad guidance, more specific information on effective collaboration on issues such as making referrals and data sharing could better position local VA staff and service providers to aid homeless veterans.

VA and DOL have multiple measures in place to assess the performance of the programs GAO selected for review, and most of the measures met their national targets from 2015 to 2019. The measures incorporated most leading practices for performance measurement—such as having measureable targets. However, DOL does not have a written policy on its process for validating its performance data, and as a result may not have reasonable assurance that these are the most accurate and reliable performance data available. Further, some local VA staff and service providers misunderstood how program data were used in assessing performance while others were unaware of VA's feedback processes on performance measures. Additional clarity and communication about VA's performance measures would help local VA staff and service providers better understand how program data are used to measure—and can be used to improve—performance.

Why GAO Did This Study

Despite a large decline over the past decade, an estimated 37,000 veterans in the United States experienced homelessness in 2019. GAO was asked to review federal assistance programs for homeless veterans. Among other objectives, this report (1) discusses challenges agencies and service providers cited in implementing selected programs; (2) evaluates how USICH, VA, and HUD collaborate; and (3) reviews selected programs' performance.

GAO analyzed federal guidance and performance data; interviewed VA, DOL, HUD and USICH officials; and met with local VA staff and service providers from selected programs at six sites. Programs were selected based on size (the largest based on funding and veterans served) and the kinds of services they offer; sites were selected for geographic diversity, among other factors. The results of these interviews are not generalizable.


GAO is making three recommendations: VA should provide additional information on how local providers can collaborate; DOL should document data quality validation processes for its homeless veterans program; and VA should clearly communicate with local VA staff and providers about how it measures performance and how to obtain and provide feedback. VA agreed with the recommendations. DOL neither agreed nor disagreed. GAO maintains that DOL should document its data quality processes, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Under Secretary for Health should provide additional information, such as best practices, about how VA medical centers and service providers participating in Coordinated Entry can collaborate with local partners on key activities (for example, making referrals and sharing data) and ensure that this information and other resources are accessible to VA medical center staff and service providers. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has provided additional information on how VA staff and service providers can collaborate in Coordinated Entry systems through monthly calls and white papers. Specifically, VA's Homeless Programs Office holds monthly calls for all homeless programs staff members who are involved in Coordinated Entry activities within their communities. According to VA officials, these calls provide an opportunity for resource and information sharing. Recent topics include Coordinated Entry assessment, VA medical center participation in local Coordinated Entry systems, the role of Coordinated Entry during the COVID-19 crisis, and meeting criteria and benchmarks to achieve an effective end to veteran homelessness. These calls have been recorded and are accessible to both VA and non-VA staff. Additionally, VA has recently published white papers on promising practices for VA homeless programs, such as papers on effective service coordination, engaging frontline staff to end veteran homelessness, and integrating Grant and Per Diem programs into community Coordinated Entry systems. These white papers are publicly available on VA's website.
Department of Labor The Assistant Secretary for DOL's Veterans' Employment and Training Service should document its data quality validation processes for performance data for the Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Program and disseminate these processes to service providers. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Labor released a new tool -- the Technical Performance Report (TPR) -- to capture and validate performance data for the Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Program (HVRP) beginning in the 2020 performance year. Specifically, the TPR uses built-in data validation formulas to verify and validate HVRP performance data inputted by program grantees. For example, the TPR flags errors with the data by striking out the data in red text or by producing error messages. Additionally, a grant officer's technical representative (GOTR) reviews the TPRs submitted by grantees and if any data validation issues are found, will work with the grantee to resolve the issues. In July 2021, DOL provided training to grantees that demonstrated how to use the TPR and described the GOTR's role in reviewing performance data. DOL also developed slides providing step-by-step instructions on how to use the TPR and correct errors.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Under Secretary for Health should clearly communicate with local VA staff and service providers about how it measures performance and how to obtain and provide feedback about performance measures. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
VA developed a guide that provides VA homeless program staff and providers with resources available to aid them in understanding and implementing the performance measures used by VA's Homeless Programs Office. The guide provides links to (1) a technical manual on homeless program performance measures, which provides a description, target, and business rules for each homeless program metric; (2) a recording of an annual call and slides that provide an overview of changes to performance measures for the upcoming year; and (3) the operational planning hub library, which provides access to technical assistance documents, manuals, and real-time reports on performance measures. The guide also states that anyone who has questions about or needs technical assistance with the performance measures can contact a VA Help Desk. VA officials emailed the guide to VA medical center homeless program staff on November 12, 2020, reviewed it on various homeless program office national calls, and made it available on the VA Homeless Program's Operational Planning Hub. Additionally, VA officials said that VA medical center staff frequently contact other VA offices directly via phone or email to ask questions or provide feedback regarding homeless program performance measures. Officials also told us that performance outcomes and performance measure business rules are routinely reviewed on various calls throughout the year, which provide VA medical center staff with an opportunity to ask questions and receive real-time responses. VA service providers can also reach out to the VA homeless programs offices and the Help Desk about the performance measures.

Full Report

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Agency evaluationsHomeless veteransHomelessnessHousingPerformance measurementVeteransHuman capital managementHealth careCase managementAssistance programs