Apply Now for 2024

Fall 2024 On-Campus MSW Application FINAL Deadline: July 16, 2024

VetConnect helps unhoused veterans receive services they need during annual homeless count

  • Giving
  • Practice

Los Angeles has more veterans experiencing homelessness than any other city in the United States. Nearly 3,500 individuals were identified as having served in a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces in the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count report, approximately 10% of the total national population of veterans. 

The Center for Homelessness, Housing and Health Equity Research (H3E) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is piloting a new program to connect veterans with much-needed housing and social services for which they already qualify due to their service to our country. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veteran Peer Access Network (VPAN) at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the VetConnect pilot leverages the resources already dedicated by H3E in their execution of the demographic survey portion of the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count to connect unhoused veterans with VA representatives and services in real time, including housing, medical care, substance use and mental health services. The survey component, which is done in addition to the visual count that is conducted by volunteers in January, takes place from December through March each year. In just a over a month since launching VetConnect USC surveyor teams have successfully referred 21 veterans who were living on the streets to the VA to receive services they have earned but are not accessing.

“In some ways the homeless count suvey is an underutilized opportunity that offers a vision for what more our school of social work could do to directly intervene,” said Ben Henwood, Frances L. and Albert G. Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health and director of H3E. “But we need clear, strong partnerships to offer the right fit at the right time, and the VA has those resources and readiness.”

VetConnect is an opportunity to take a small step in the direction of going beyond documenting the problem of homelessness to begin addressing it. Veterans experiencing homelessness, in particular, face a variety of barriers to obtaining services to which they are entitled. For example, veterans who qualify for disability often find that payments are too little to afford housing but too much to qualify for county housing assistance. The dedicated VA representatives through VetConnect are able to connect veterans experiencing homelessness due to this discrepancy directly with the services to help them immediately.

"The Los Angeles Homeless Count previously was exclusively focused on ‘counting’ persons believed to be homeless,” said John Kuhn, deputy medical center director at the Greater Los Angeles VA. “Through this unique collaboration with USC, for the first time the VA has been able to connect unsheltered veterans to emergency housing during the count.”

H3E has collaborated with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) on the design, implementation and analysis of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count for the past eight years. The annual count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and intended to provide point-in-time estimates of the homeless population within the Los Angeles County continuum of care geographic area.

Personal connections that overcome barriers

VetConnect was generously underwritten by USC alumna Loretta Huahn, MSW ‘61, whose late husband was a Navy veteran. Huahn had been seeking an opportunity to effect change for the veteran population in Los Angeles that continued to experience homelessness in high numbers.

“Veterans sacrifice a lot, often with their lives, to protect the safety and freedom for those at home and we don’t do enough for them,” Huahn said. “The homeless problem is such a vast, unresolved issue. I wanted to look more deeply at one part of it, and I felt the connection to our military background with this pilot program.”

Huahn spent her career as a social worker deeply entrenched in community practice and hopes VetConnect will inspire the next generation of USC social work innovators to do deep work in their own communities.

The process of the VetConnect pilot is for the VA and the VPAN to have a point of contact on call each day that a USC survey team is out on the streets. When a member of the USC survey team encounters a self-identifying veteran, a call is made to the assigned VA point of contact who verifies the individual’s status and eligibility for services in real-time. If eligible, the VPAN sends a responder to the veteran’s location on the street within 45 minutes.

Alternatively, if the veteran does not wish to be connected with the VA right away, the USC surveyor provides them with a postcard containing information on how to reach a dedicated VA contact. The most successful approach has been during “blitz days,” when the USC surveyors go out in larger teams to areas with higher rates of homelessness and a VA point of contact accompanies each team in-person, engaging with veterans face-to-face as they are identified The 21 successful referrals in the first weeks of the pilot began with blitz day connections where veterans developed an immediate, face-to-face relationship with a VA contact, who are often veterans themselves.

“The most heartwarming and successful portion of the effort has been when our veteran partners are right there, face to face with veterans, letting them know what they can offer,” said Amy Stein, project administrator for H3E, and also leads data collection for the demographic survey portion of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. “It can break down some of the barriers that have kept them from accessing services in the past. Any outcome that includes someone gathering up their possessions and getting into a VA vehicle to receive services is wonderful.” 

Erik Guadron, project assistant with H3E who has served as a data collector and USC survey team lead for the annual count for the past three years, sometimes finds it difficult when they are not able to provide immediate services. Working alongside the VA contacts has been different than he expected.

“This year definitely feels like we’re doing more than collecting data,” Guadron said. “Getting to know [the VA representatives] and see how they interact with other veterans is really eye-opening. There is a camaraderie that people who have served have with each other, even between different branches of service, that is inspiring.”

While the pilot of VetConnect is limited to areas of the Los Angeles that are more intensely populated with people experiencing homelessness, including Skid Row, Hollywood, Santa Monica and Venice, Huahn is hopeful that VetConnect will generate additional funding sources to enable a geographic expansion in coming years, covering more high-need populations within Los Angeles County.

Guadron agrees, finding that VetConnect has already made a significant difference in his work. “Twenty-one people might not seem like that many,” he said. “But those are 21 human beings who are now receiving the resources they need which, unfortunately, they were deprived of previously.”

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: