By Ed O'Keefe and Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
The Department of Veterans Affairs laid out Tuesday an ambitious five-year goal of curbing the number of homeless veterans, pledging $3.2 billion to an issue that is more rapidly affecting those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than by any from past conflicts.
"No one who has served this nation as veterans should ever be living on the streets," VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said.
"In the past, VA focused largely on getting homeless veterans off the streets," Shinseki said. "This plan is different. It aims as much, if not more, on preventing as it does on rescuing those who live on the streets."
Roughly 131,000 of the nation's 24 million veterans may be homeless on any given night, and about twice as many are homeless each year, according to VA estimates. About 3 percent of homeless vets served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but a 2007 study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that they become homeless faster than do other veterans. While homeless Vietnam veterans first spent, on average, five to 10 years trying to readjust to society, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can end up homeless within 18 months, the study said.
Government officials and homeless experts worry that the number of homeless veterans could climb another 10 to 15 percent in the economic downturn.
"The economy's hitting our people very hard. Unemployment rates are over 12 percent now," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Mortgage foreclosure rates around military bases is four times the average. And it's hard to keep a job if you're getting deployed every 12 months if you're a national guardsman."
The new VA commitment adds $400 million to its current efforts to prevent homelessness. Eighty-five percent of the funds will go toward health-care costs, an acknowledgement that homelessness is often secondary to health problems, especially mental health issues and substance abuse.
The department will expand current partnerships with the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal, state and community veterans programs. It will also assist veteran-owned businesses in qualifying for federal contracts and surviving the downturn.
Shinseki invited thousands of government, nonprofit and faith-based homelessness experts and advocates to Washington this week to tackle the issue, which he vows to fix during his tenure.
"I'm the newcomer here today, so let me reiterate that this is not a summit on homeless veterans, it's a summit to end homelessness among veterans," he said. "That's our purpose."
Vietnam Veterans of America applauded the goal. But Richard Weidman, head of policy and government affairs, added, "There are additional things that we think need to be addressed to be successful in achieving that goal, although it's a good start."
Weidman cited a need for the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department to do more to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder; improve treatment for substance-abusing veterans, who comprise about a third of the homeless veterans population; and eliminate a backlog in providing compensation to veterans too ill to work. Fresh attention to the needs of women veterans, who comprise an increasing portion of the homeless veterans population, would also be a boon, he said.
"If you add those other elements, you're never gonna get to zero, but we can do a hell of a lot better than we are doing," Weidman said.
Shinseki -- a former Army chief of staff who once clashed with the Bush administration over its Iraq war policy -- has earned praise for his tough approach to reviving a department described as moribund by lawmakers.
"We've seen responsiveness from the VA that we haven't seen in the past," said Terry Howell, an editor at Military.com, a veterans news and social-networking site.
"They're quick to try new and interesting approaches to solving the issues that they're facing right now," Howell said.