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VA looks for help in fight to end homelessness

By law, department can provide housing, but not basic necessities

Jul. 26, 2013 - 10:13AM   |  
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The number of homeless veterans in the U.S. has decreased by 17 percent since 2009 — but many of these men and women are put in apartments without furniture, paid utilities or even toilet paper, according to advocates.

By law, the Veterans Affairs Department cannot provide furnishings, home goods or first and last month’s rent unless donated through an outside organization or nonprofit group. VA also is not allowed to solicit for money or accept donations.

In 2009, President Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to end homelessness among military veterans by 2015. Millions of dollars in VA grants have been poured into more than 300 nonprofits and other organizations under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program to get these vets off the streets. Recently, VA awarded nearly $300 million in grants toward this effort, a three-fold increase over last year.

With the number of homeless veterans dropping from an estimated 300,000 in 2003 to about 62,000 in 2012, VA is heading in a positive direction, according to data from the Housing and Urban Development Department.

But housing alone is not enough to get these veterans stabilized and permanently off the streets, said Lisa Pape, director of homeless programs at VA’s Veterans Health Administration.

While the significant decline in homeless veterans is remarkable, Pape said, it’s marred by the inability to fill their rooms with necessities once they move in. Under the current restrictions, Pape said she can envision “this homeless veteran in his new apartment with a shopping cart in an empty room.”

Unless legislation is passed to give the department more leeway to provide furniture and other needs, VA’s hands are tied, she said.

In the meantime, the problem cannot be fixed by the government alone, but requires a shared effort from local businesses and organizations, she said.

The HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program has given out 58,000 housing vouchers for veterans since 2008. The vouchers cover about 85 percent of a recipient’s monthly rent.

Another 11,000 vouchers will be awarded in fiscal 2014, but the need is greater, said Matt Carey, director of the District of Columbia Office of Veterans Affairs.

“If you can prevent a veteran from falling into homelessness or being in at-risk situations, you can head off various other issues like addiction and health problems,” said Carey.

The District of Columbia now has fewer than 400 homeless veterans, most of them in shelters, according to Carey.

Although the numbers are declining, the homecoming of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan poses a challenge to VA’s progress, said John Driscoll, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Many homeless vets are a result of VA’s lack of sufficient support after the Vietnam War, Driscoll said.

Sequestration also will have an impact on the efforts. VA’s veterans benefits programs have been spared the automatic cuts, but its partners, specifically HUD, have been affected by employee furloughs and budget restrictions.

Yet despite the obstacles, VA still is expected to reach its goal on time, said Ian Lisman, veterans’ policy analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We have a system in place where no vet should be without a place to call home,” Lisman said.

However, the objective of ending homelessness by 2015 is set at a “functional zero,” which Lisman identifies as less than 10,000 nationwide.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in an email that the U.S. has not adequately served the men and women who have fought for their country.

“Our nation’s veterans deserve to return to America full of opportunities to thrive and succeed after serving our great nation,” said Duckworth, herself a double-amputee Iraq War veteran. “Unfortunately, that is currently not the case.”

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