Survey Shows Need for Better Data Gathering Methods for Homeless Veterans

homeless veteran

Have you ever wondered what the most challenging obstacles are for veterans experiencing homelessness? A new survey consisting of the responses of 5,377 homeless or formerly homeless veterans yielded surprising results. Here’s a look at what homeless veterans are really going through.

One Study – Two Perspectives: A Look Through the Glass of Veteran Homelessness

The January-February 2023 issue of “Veteran’s Perspectives” highlights an important study examining the health, quality of life, environment, and social concerns surrounding veteran homelessness.

The original survey consisted of yes or no questions and responses from more than 5,000 veterans with homeless experience.

Under the impression that services could be improved if homeless veteran needs were better understood, researchers from HSR&D and QUERI analyzed the papers.

One thing was immediately clear.

It wasn’t just the questions that were asked that needed answers. More important research could be framed around the questions that were not asked. As it turns out, the complexities of veteran homelessness simply cannot be contained within a series of questions that denote one-word answers.

In the Margins: 1,933 Comments Were Made to Explain the Answers

Researchers quickly learned that survey respondents felt the need to add more details than these close-ended questions allowed for. Scrawled right between the lines, there were additional comments explaining the yes or no answers.

For example, when one veteran was asked if they used alcohol or drugs, they responded with the following explanation:

“Marijuana to ease my pain. Because they took my pain meds.”

Surveyors found that the most common questions veteran felt the need to comment on were related to one of the following:

  • Drugs and alcohol – either why they used it, why they didn’t use it, or how long they had been in recovery
  • Pain levels – if you suspected homeless veterans might be experiencing off-the-charts physical pain, you were correct, at least according to the comments in this particular survey
  • Their strong feelings about their primary care clinicians – whether they felt exuberantly happy with their medical services or the opposite (neglected by their doctors), many veterans felt the need to fill that blank in with more than just a yes or no

Careful analysis revealed that there would need to be research into this research, and a second study was conducted using just the unprompted comments sections.

Topmost Commented-on Questions

The most commented-on questions appear below, in order of the number of comments left.

  • Have you felt you wanted or needed to cut down on your drinking or drug use in the last 12 months? If yes, what substance? – 108 homeless veterans felt the need to leave more details about this. One participant left a lengthy explanation of how they had been sober for 30 years despite contemplating alcohol each day.      
  • Does the distance you have to travel make it difficult to receive care at your clinic? Sixty-one respondents sought to expound on this question to describe just how challenging transportation can be during bouts of homelessness.
  • Are you currently homeless? One of the most telling parts of this survey is that 47 participants felt the need to provide additional details rather than replying yes or no to this question.
  • How hard is it for you to pay for the very basics like food and heating? This question garnered 36 noteworthy replies.

In addition to commenting on yes or no questions, several survey respondents also felt the need to exceed the allotted pain scale, which quantified physical discomfort on a scale of one to ten. Some claimed their pain was an eleven or higher, and at least one survey participant felt their pain exceeded the scale by four full points.

Many veterans also described where the pain was coming from, such as having a screw in the knee or suffering from sciatica. They were also inclined to list the limitations caused by the pain they’d mentioned, such as no longer being able to walk, jog, or even sleep.

Key Takeaway: Complex Subjects Require Nuanced Answers

This study within study reveals that to understand veteran homelessness, we must improve our data-gathering methods.

Experts suggest that an open-ended text response option be built into future surveys and that qualitative interviews are also useful.

However, there is something else to be considered, which is social shaming. Note how these respondents were inclined to leave lengthy explanations beside questions that carry social stigmas such as drug abuse, pain levels, and current homeless status. This, too, deserves a deeper dive.

We Are on the Cusp of Drastically Reducing Veteran Homelessness in America. Please Urge Your Legislators to Support Housing First.

Veteran homelessness continues to be a complex subject. However, a Housing First Approach to ending it has already saved more than 40,000 homeless veterans by providing them with permanent housing placements. Please urge your legislators to continue moving in this direction toward housing all veterans and citizens.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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