Despite inter-agency best efforts, VA can’t eliminate veterans homelessness without expanding its reach

Veterans homelessness is down nationwide by 49% since the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs launched an inter-agency partnership...

Veterans homelessness is down 49% since the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs began an inter-agency effort to tackle the issue nine years ago.

More specifically, about 77 communities and three states across the country have declared an effective end to veterans homelessness, Hunter Kurtz, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at HUD, told a handful of members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee at a field hearing in San Diego, California, last week.

The departments have granted 97,000 vouchers nationwide through the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program since 2008, which have helped more than 174,000 veterans move into housing units, Kurtz said.

The joint partnership that HUD and VA forged back in 2010 was one of the signature cross-agency priority goals and collaborations of the Obama administration.

And while both departments have documented some real progress since, members of Congress, local housing officials and veterans organizations still see an opportunity to improve deeply-rooted barriers that ultimately challenge VA to expand its reach with the veterans population.

The committee held its hearing in San Diego, as more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless veterans reside in California. And while both VA and HUD note progress nationally, California alone has experienced a 17% rise in veterans homelessness from 2016 to 2018, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said.

“We understand that veterans homelessness is a complicated issue and that jobs and education are part of the solution, but not the whole solution,” Takano said. “We must look at veterans holistically and establish correlations between mental health, substance abuse, single parent status, rank, discharge status, as well as other indicators with homelessness in order to best utilize our resources.”

It’s those resources, which Takano described as VA “wrap-around services,” that need more focus and attention, housing officials and veterans told the committee.

The problem begins when military members leave active-duty service and begin their transition to civilian life.

“There’s a large cadre of activity duty military who separate without, for a variety of reasons, either knowing as much as they might about VA services or just not feeling like it was time for them,” Robert Smith, director of the San Diego VA Health Care System, said. “One of the complaints I often get when I’m out in the community is veterans who either don’t know about the VA or feel like they weren’t told about the VA at the time of their separation from active duty. That is an area that we are all committed to improving.”

The President last year directed VA and the Defense Department, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, to form their own inter-agency group and examine how they can better support members of the military from active-duty to civilian life.

Together, the agencies created a joint action plan, which addresses how the departments will improve access to mental health and suicide prevention resources.

“The problem is getting veterans to go to the VA and ask for care that they don’t want anyone to know they [need], which goes into the stigma issue,” Nathan Fletcher, San Diego County supervisor, said. “If we don’t tackle that, then the veterans won’t access the available services. Their untreated mental health issues will lead to self-medication … which will then trigger a downward spiral into the issue of homelessness.”

Veterans suicide prevention is the top clinical priority for VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, which he reiterated Wednesday in a speech to the American Legion. On average, 20 veterans die every day by suicide, according to VA. Of the 20, 14 veterans have little to no contact with the VA.

“No VA secretary [or] no federal department can solve this problem from Washington, especially when most of those veterans are not in our system,” Wilkie said. “We will not get anywhere on veterans suicide until this nation has a national conversation about life, and that is a conversation veterans can start today.”

Beyond expanding VA’s reach, veterans and local housing authorities have pointed to other challenges, such as improving the methodology the departments use to identify and count homeless veterans and incentivizing landlords to accept HUD-VASH vouchers.

Funding, both departments said, isn’t the main problem.

HUD hasn’t requested additional HUD-VASH funding since fiscal 2015, Kurtz said.

“We believe that there is sufficient funding currently across the nation, but we just need to work to utilize what funding is there currently to ensure that we and the VA are working together to house veterans,” he said. “We are looking [at] flexibilities. We’re allowing VA medical centers for the regions they cover, we can switch vouchers from one public housing authority to another in that area. And if we need to, we have not yet, but we’re looking at possibly even moving funding in a broader scale if need be.”

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