Veterans groups fight for homelessness funding

As service members afflicted with psychological disorders return from Afghanistan and Iraq, several organizations are pressing Congress to increase funding for programs to help prevent homelessness among veterans, an issue that has affected many who fought in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Combat stress, traumatic experiences and brain injuries, as well as protracted deployments — particularly among reservists who may not have been as prepared for war as active-duty troops — place returning veterans at a risk. Mental-health issues are a potential precursor to substance abuse, loss of employment and homelessness.

Community-based organizations and housing and service providers have served a critical role in supporting the approximately 200,000 homeless veterans across the country, creating a link between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Congress and the veterans in need.

This year, the lobbying and education campaigns of organizations such as the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and Volunteers of America are intensifying, reflecting the groups’ aim to attain both the funding and the policy necessary to prevent the homelessness that plagued Vietnam-era veterans.

Congress, rocked by the recently revealed patient conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has taken comprehensive steps to address issues of veterans’ medical care. Lawmakers are receptive to the increased outreach of groups dealing with homelessness, according to several sources.

The VA is paying attention as well. From 2004 to 2006, it helped to provide shelter for 300 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Peter Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the VA.

Currently, Dougherty said, currently about 50 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are in so-called homeless-specific residential treatment programs.

However, the VA may not have records on all those who have needed help. In New York City, for example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has assisted 60 homeless veterans since 2004.

“It is clear to us that there is a strong need for the VA to be extremely diligent in ensuring that these veterans get immediate attention,” Dougherty said in testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with veterans issues. The VA, together with a host of external partners, seeks out these veterans, he added.
“We firmly believe that the best strategy to prevent homelessness is early intervention,” he said.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans provides support to about 150,000 veterans every year. About 1.8 percent of the people it helps at any given time are veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. About 40 percent of the homeless veterans served in Vietnam.

The coalition’s president and chief executive, Cheryl Beversdorf, said the number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is fluid and it is too early to amass a solid tally. Veterans may be homeless at a particular time, but may not stay that way.

Still, the community-based organizations that work with the coalition are reporting that more people are checking in at their facilities, she said in an interview. 

At the center of the coalition’s lobbying and education push is increasing funding for a transitional housing program. The VA’s homeless provider grant and per diem program provides competitive grants to community-based, faith-based and public organizations to offer transitional housing or service centers for homeless veterans.

Congress last year authorized the program at $130 million, but appropriations came in at $92 million for 2007 under the joint continuing resolution.

Beversdorf’s organization would like to see an authorization of $170 million in 2008 and $200 million in 2009.
With competing funding requirements, appropriating the $130 million authorized could be tough. Meanwhile, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee made a recommendation for the budget resolution of $130 million for the program, according to sources.

The Government Accountability Office said the need for an additional 9,600 beds will arise over time, according to Beversdorf. “What will be needed for that is more funding for the per diem program,” she said. ‘That is the starting point for the veterans to get back on their feet.” The VA also has recognized the increasing need for beds, she added.
Among the coalition’s other policy issues for this year are ensuring income security so veterans can obtain and maintain permanent housing and creating access to comprehensive and affordable healthcare for them.

Volunteers of America, a national non-profit and faith-based organization that has been working with the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, also has intensified its push on Capitol Hill and in the public eye.

Volunteers of America has been emphasizing that the underlying causes of homelessness are related to mental health and substance abuse and suggests that all returning veterans should be screened. Once screened and diagnosed, appropriate case management is necessary, the organization’s VP for operations and strategic development, Karen Dale, said.

“Veterans have to be linked early and they need case management,” she said in an interview. “If you do the appropriate screening there has to be funding for case managers so that veterans can get the right services.” 

Dale would like to see the case manager-to-patient ratio reduced. Legislation by Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) addresses the issue, she said.

Volunteers of America also seeks changes to the GI Bill, including giving veterans access to Section 8 housing, which provides assistance to low-income renters and homeowners. Currently, the bill only provides assistance to homebuyers, a provision dating back to World War II.

The organization’s VP of legislative affairs and public policy, Cherae Bishop, spends her days on the Hill educating committee staff and members about Volunteers of America’s housing and support services. While Bishop does most of the outreach on Capitol Hill, Volunteers of America hired Patton Boggs last year to work on congressional issues.

(Disclosure: Brendan Cusack, brother of The Hill Managing Editor Bob Cusack, helped produce a 2006 movie about veterans becoming homeless after returning from Iraq.)