The Veterans Affairs Department is making progress on its pledge to end homelessness among veterans, with a focus on getting all homeless veterans off the streets by 2015, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told American Forces Press Service.
Shinseki joined President Barack Obama in announcing the plan in November 2009, proclaiming that no veteran should ever have to be living on the streets.
VA is working toward that goal, Shinseki told Congress last month, reporting that the number of homeless veterans on a given night dropped from 76,300 in 2010 to about 67,500 in 2011. The next goal, he said, is to drive those numbers down to 35,000 by the end of fiscal 2013, and ultimately, to zero.
As Shinseki set out to transform VA after arriving in 2009, he made the homeless issue a top priority in getting to the bottom of what he viewed as an institutional problem.
“Homelessness among veterans was a demonstration to me that we didn’t have all our programs knitted together,” he said. “As good as we thought we were doing in health care and other benefits, … we had people who were slipping through the gaps in our programs — most visibly, the homeless.”
Getting homeless veterans off the streets, particularly within such a tight timeline, would be the driving force in creating positive change throughout VA, he explained.
“If you say you are going to end homelessness, then you have to be good at everything else,” he said. “If you declare to end it, you have to figure out all the pieces that contribute to it so you can begin solving the pieces in order for the whole to be solved.”
That, he said, requires making sure VA is addressing the root causes behind homelessness.
It means more than simply getting veterans into school; it means making sure they graduate, he explained. It’s not just sending them for vocational training; it’s ensuring they finish the training and are postured to land a job.
“That’s how you beat homelessness,” Shinseki said. “It’s not the front door. It’s the back door. What did they gain out of the program?”
To support this effort, VA’s budget request for fiscal 2013 includes nearly $1.4 billion for programs designed to prevent or end homelessness among veterans. This represents a 33 percent increase, or $333 million, over the 2012 funding level.
The additional funding will provide grants and technical assistance to community nonprofit organizations to maintain veterans and their families in current housing or get them quickly into new housing. It also will provide grants and per diem payments for community-based organizations offering transitional housing to 32,000 veterans.
Shinseki also plans to hire 200 coordinators to help homeless veterans with disability claims, housing problems, job and vocational opportunities and problems with the courts.
Since announcing his homeless initiative, Shinseki said, he’s come to understand that dealing with homelessness is really a two-part challenge.
It’s one thing to get homeless veterans physically off the streets in what he calls the “rescue” part of the challenge. Shinseki said he feels confident that this part of the mission to be completed by 2015, as promised.
But the less visible and more challenging part of the problem, he said, is addressing a population that’s at risk of becoming homeless. These, Shinseki explained, are veterans who are “one paycheck, one mortgage payment, one more missed utility bill away from being evicted.”
“We never see that. But if we are going to truly end homelessness, we have to have a better picture of [that]… and go into prevention mode,” Shinseki said. “Otherwise, you will never be able to solve this.”
So while he expects the rescue mission to wrap up in 2015, Shinseki said, he’ll be able to dedicate more resources toward an ongoing prevention effort.
“If you don’t stop this faucet, you never end homelessness,” he said.