Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C.

Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — With the nationwide moratorium on evictions set to end this week, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs advanced a bill Wednesday that would make permanent the increased assistance given during the coronavirus pandemic to combat veteran homelessness.

The Building Solutions for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness Act of 2021 would extend indefinitely the extra resources and flexibility given during the pandemic to the federal, state and local agencies that provide services to homeless veterans. Advocates have warned the expiration of these resources could create an “unprecedented wave” of veteran homelessness.

Advocates for homeless veterans have said they also feared the end of the federal protections keeping landlords from evicting tenants. The moratorium ends Saturday.

In June, Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a nonprofit focused on ending veteran homelessness, urged lawmakers to extend the protections for tenants.

“I don’t think the economy has recovered to a point where people are able to cover all of these expenses or have all gone back to work,” Monet said at the time. “I think that’s a huge problem.”

One of the actions that Congress took at the start of the pandemic was to increase the maximum rates for the VA’s grant and per diem program. The money went to shelters, which get paid for filling beds but were unable to house as many veterans in order to abide by social distancing guidelines.

The higher rates allowed shelters to improve their facilities, space out veterans and provide better care. Under the bill introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the rate would increase from a maximum of 115% to 200%.

In addition, the bill aims to provide all veterans with case-management services, increase funding for veteran employment initiatives, expand public transportation benefits to homeless veterans, and house aging veterans as they wait for placement in long-term care facilities. It also establishes a five-year grant for programs that help veterans with recovery from substance abuse.

The effects of the pandemic on veteran homelessness remains relatively unknown. The Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a report in March that focused on the number of homeless veterans on a single night in January 2020, before the widespread effects of the pandemic reached the United States.

In January 2020, there were 37,252 veterans experiencing homelessness — an increase of 167 veterans, or 0.4%, from the previous year. The statistic stoked concern among advocates that the effects of the pandemic would add to an already regressive trend.

Tester’s bill was one of 13 pieces of legislation advanced by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The bills still must get approved by the full Senate and House before becoming law.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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