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Advocates concerned veteran homelessness isn’t a VA priority

Listening to opening statements at a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 18, 2018, are, left to right, witnesses John F. Clancy, president and CEO of Tristate Veterans Community Alliance; Angela F. Williams, president and CEO of Easterseals, Inc.; Stephen Peck, president and CEO of U.S. VETS; and John W. Martin, development director of The Opportunity Center in El Paso, Texas.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2018

WASHINGTON – An attempt by the Department of Veterans Affairs late last year to reduce funding to a veterans housing program has created a lingering rift between the agency and veterans advocates.

Concerns over how the VA is prioritizing housing programs was evident Thursday, when members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs heard from nonprofit groups that help house homeless veterans. The same groups spoke up in December, when they discovered VA Secretary David Shulkin wanted to reallocate $460 million specifically geared toward the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. Through the program, the VA provides case management for veterans who receive housing vouchers from HUD.

Outcry from advocates and lawmakers led Shulkin to back track on his decision. But leaders of several nonprofit groups told congressmen Thursday that they’re still concerned it could happen again.

“While VA has backed away from this decision, for the time being, this could’ve dramatically reduced case management for vulnerable veterans,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Let me be really clear, NCHV objects in the strongest of terms to this proposed conversion, or any action that would reduce case management availability. To remove it would be catastrophic to the housing stability of veterans using these vouchers.”

While testifying before a Senate committee on Wednesday, Shulkin said his intent was to move funding into a general-purpose account to provide more flexibility for local leaders to decide how to combat veteran homelessness in their specific geographical area.

According to a HUD report from December, there were 585 more homeless veterans at the beginning of 2017 than in 2016. It was the first increase of homeless veterans since 2010. Because of that, the program needs a “reboot,” Shulkin said.

“We need to do this better,” he said. “We have to rethink our effort. We need to double down on things that work and come up with a fresh approach here. I’m not satisfied with the progress we’re making.”

Shulkin promised any changes would mean more resources for homeless veterans, not less.

Thomas Lynch, a VA deputy undersecretary for health, said the VA’s proposal to shift funding created “unnecessary confusion.” He reiterated Thursday that the VA remained committed to ending veteran homelessness and said housing programs would be examined.

In coming months, the VA will solicit input from nonprofits, other stakeholders and other government agencies about possible changes, he said.

“This program is now 10 years old,” Lynch said of HUD-VASH. “I think it’s time we need to have a critical re-evaluation.”

Stephen Peck, president of U.S. VETS, said Thursday that he worried the secretary’s attempt to shift funds symbolized that the agency was neglecting efforts to decrease veteran homelessness. He urged the VA to provide more money for case management through the HUD-VASH program, which is already lacking.

“It seems to us there is no longer an emphasis and determination to get every veteran off the streets,” Peck said. “This is no time to be taking our eye off the ball.”

Lawmakers also had concerns the VA was attempting to weaken housing initiatives. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said Thursday that she worried the country would “lose ground in the fight against homelessness” under President Donald Trump.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked Shulkin on Wednesday for more transparency, stating many members of Congress didn’t know about the proposed shift in homelessness funding until some nonprofit groups spoke against it.

“The department has to be more transparent with Congress,” Murray said. “It has to.”

Shulkin responded any lack of transparency wasn’t purposeful.

“There has been no desire to do anything underhanded or to hide things,” he said. “We’re trying to do so much so fast, and we’re obviously making some mistakes.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, listens to opening statements at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 18, 2018.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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