Registered nurse from William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center, Sarah Murph, provides medical screenings Nov. 3 at the stand down for homelessness veterans. Credit: William Jennings Bryan Dorn VAMC

Legion supports VA, HUD, DoL efforts to reduce veteran homelessness

The American Legion submitted a statement for the record to the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittees on Health and Economic Opportunity following a joint hearing on Jan. 18 to learn what efforts that U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Labor (DoL) officials are taking to reduce veteran homelessness.

The hearing featured testimonies from leading representatives of local nonprofits including the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance, Easterseals, Inc., U.S. VETS, The Opportunity Center and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Federal officials discussed various programs, from housing and health care to job placement assistance, that their departments provide for homeless and at-risk veterans.

“This is a subject that is heartbreaking,” Economic Opportunity Subcommittee Chairman Jodey Arrington said. “When you look at the statistics on homelessness on the underlying issues that our veterans struggle with, many and maybe mostly on account of the burden that they bore for us and for our country and for our freedom, it’s just gut-wrenching. There’s not an issue that I don’t believe is more important than to find ways to help and serve this segment of the veteran population.”

To fully implement the VA’s pledge to eradicate veterans homelessness, The American Legion believes that Congress must continue making responsible investments in affordable housing and programs that move veterans and their families off the streets and into stable housing.

VA

VA and HUD reported there were more than 40,000 homeless veterans on a single night in January 2017. The VA has since taken decisive action toward its goal of ending veteran homelessness by developing a plan to assist every individual willing to accept services; retain or acquire safe housing; provide needed treatment services; give employment opportunities; and provide benefits assistance.

Thomas Lynch, Veterans Health Administration's health deputy undersecretary for clinical operations, said in his written testimony that the VA and its partners "have developed systematic protocols for ending veteran homelessness. (Those protocols) include the identification of all veterans experiencing homelessness, the ability to provide shelter immediately and the capacity to help veterans swiftly move into permanent housing.”

When it comes to addressing mental health concerns and substance use disorders (SUD), Lynch said the VA continues to integrate resources in the homeless program, with an emphasis on evidence-based treatment and suicide prevention. Efforts in support of this include mandatory suicide prevention training for all homeless program employees, and the inclusion of mental health and SUD specialists, he added.

“The number of veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States has declined by nearly one-half since 2010. This is an unprecedented decline, both as it relates to ending homelessness in this country and, in comparison, to other public health efforts,” Lynch said. “To date, 60 communities across 30 states have achieved the goal of effectively ending veteran homelessness. Over 600,000 veterans and their family members have been assured housing through HUD’s targeted vouchers and VA’s homeless programs.”

According to Lynch, he said the VA has dramatically increased the number of services available to at-risk or homeless veterans, focusing on matters concerning housing, clinical care, social services and resources aimed at preventing homelessness.

Lynch said the VA’s way forward is to work with federal partners to implement the elements of its interagency strategic plan to end veteran homelessness. Over the next several months, the VA will engage in a formal interagency process to solicit further input to ensure that any realignment of funds best supports the nation’s veterans.

“VA’s efforts must comprehensively be linked to all community efforts as well,” he said. “One size does not fit all when it comes to ending veteran homelessness.”

HUD

Due to our work with homeless veterans and their families, the Legion understands these individuals need a sustained, coordiated effort and programs must focus on helping veterans reach their highest level of self-management.

HUD Public and Indian Housing General Deputy Assistant Secretary Dominique Blom said the department is committed to ending veteran homelessness by working collaboratively with its partners, and maximizing the effectiveness of all existing resources.

“Thanks to funding from Congress and this collaborative partnership, we have made remarkable progress,” she said.

HUD has awarded approximately 93,000 HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers throughout 2017, with more than 300 Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) participating in the program nationwide. Through HUD’s Continuum of Care program, $97 million in funds were used to help serve about 17,000 veterans, according to Blom. 

Blom said most of that funding is for permanent supportive housing that houses approximately 10,000 veterans with disabilities. Thousands more are served with rapid re-housing, emergency shelter and other assistance.

“This program is one of our most effective tools at reducing veteran homelessness,” she said. “Since 2008, over 131,000 veterans and their families have used a HUD-VASH voucher to move into safe, stable housing. And as of September, over 77,000 veterans were housed through HUD-VASH.” 

According to Blom, HUD will be awarding nearly 5,500 new vouchers using the additional $40 million in HUD-VASH funding that was appropriated last year. She said the department has worked with the VA and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to determine the processes and priorities for this award process. 

“Although we’ve seen incredible results through the program, we continue to make changes to address local needs,” she said. “HUD and the VA plan to develop a process to capture unused HUD-VASH vouchers and reallocate them to high-need cities. Second, we have awarded 4,700 VASH vouchers as project-based vouchers, allowing for the development of affordable housing in high-cost areas. Third, we are encouraging public housing authorities to project base their existing HUD-VASH vouchers, which was made easier through the Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act of 2016.”

DoL

Another critical federal program in the fight to eliminate veteran homelessness is the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) within DoL’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Services (VETS). The Legion believes that HVRP is the most effective program available to address homeless veterans financial issues by helping them obtain gainful employment.

VETS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Matt Miller said HVRP is an important component of VETS’ mission as it not only helps homeless veterans reenter the labor force, but also provides grants for various stakeholders to assist with that reintegration effort and effectiveness of delivery systems.

The agency’s mission, according to Miller, is focused on four key areas which include preparing veterans for meaningful careers; providing them with employment resources and expertise; protecting their employment rights; and promoting the employment of veterans and related training opportunities to employers across the country.

“For the department, one veteran experiencing homelessness is one too many,” Miller said.

Miller said each HVRP participant receives customized employment and training services to address their specific barriers to employment. Services may include occupational, classroom and on-the-job training, as well as assistance with job searching/placement and post-placement follow-up services.

“The fastest growing segment of the veteran population is women,” Miller said. “HVRP funds are used to serve them along with veterans of families and incarcerated veterans. We also support stand down events where we partner with federal and state agencies, local businesses and social service providers to offer critical services to homeless veterans.”

Thanks to $38.1 million that was appropriated for HVRP in 2016, Miller said DoL was able to fund about 64 new grants, 89 option-year grant extensions, 64 stand down grants and 12 grants each for its Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families and Incarcerated Veterans’ Transition programs. About 65 percent of more than 16,600 homeless veterans were placed into employment.

Last year, Miller said HVRP received an appropriation worth $45 million which provided services to more than 16,000 homeless veterans, with a 67 percent placement rate. Those veterans earned an average of $12.88 per hour.

In its 2016 annual report to Congress, DoL recommended a technical amendment for the definition of a homeless veteran in section 38 of United States Code 2002(a)(1). Miller said this recommendation is especially critical now, as DoL believes the current definition creates an unintended barrier for those unable to access employment services and opportunities.

“Studies have shown that barriers to employment exist after immediate housing needs are met and individuals still run a risk of becoming homeless again,” Miller said. “VETS’ 2016 annual report to Congress proposes a solution to this and I’d like to work with you to further discuss and rectify this problem.”

“One of our challenges is funding and the effort to protect the people’s treasure, and yet provide the needed services for our veterans,” Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said. “We’re duty-bound to find areas where there are duplicative services that may not be necessary.”

Miller also spoke about DoL VETS’ Jobs for Veterans State Grants, Transition Assistance Program Employment Workshop and the new HIRE Vets Medallion Program that was introduced last November. He said DoL Secretary R. Alexander Acosta stands firmly behind the nation’s servicemembers and veterans as the department seeks to end veteran homelessness.

American Legion support

The American Legion applauds Congress for their substantial funding for veterans homeless programs, as well as the VA, HUD and DoL for their implementation of programs that have saved the lives of thousands of veterans.

With veterans making up nearly 10 percent of the nation’s total adult homeless population, The American Legion is committed to seeing VA’s goal of ending veteran homelessness come to fruition. The American Legion's goal is to ensure that every community across the United States has programs and services in place to get housing for homeless veterans, while also connecting at-risk veterans with local services and resources they need.

The Legion will continue to place special priority on the issue of veteran homelessness and calls on Congress, and the VA, to do the same.

Click here to The American Legion's full statement for the record.

Click here to learn about American Legion resolution concerning veteran homelessness. ​