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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
Washington, DC
June 21, 2010

Congratulations on your 20th anniversary, especially those of you who have been here since the beginning. You have so much to celebrate. Starting with 16 members, you now number 275, and can count another 2,100 organizations that rely on you for advice and assistance — including VA.

You are the leading authority on homeless Veterans in this country and are still the only national organization dedicated solely to helping them. You have fought hard and won greater involvement by government; increased, critical funding for Veterans homeless initiatives, such as VA’s Grant and Per Diem program; and most importantly, you have made real differences in the lives of tens of thousands of Veterans.

Six years ago, 195,000 Veterans lived on the streets of America. Today, that estimate is 107,000. Much of this progress is due to the collaboration between your coalition members — the creative geniuses in this effort — and the various local, state, and federal agencies that support your initiatives. That collaboration has been nurtured by this coalition, and we, at VA, are pleased and proud to join you as partners in this crucial effort.

Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a longstanding tradition in this country — threads of selflessness that are woven into our national character. Our nation’s Veterans, who come from every town and village in this great land, are a vital part of that fabric. In honoring their service, VA keeps faith with Abraham Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families. Nowhere is our obligation to them more important, more visible, or more necessary than in our commitment to end Veteran homelessness.

For over 20 years now, VA has been involved in street outreach, residential and transitional housing services, vocational rehabilitation, access to primary and mental health care, counseling for substance abuse, and assistance with benefits to those who qualify. But while noble, our efforts lacked coordination, synchronization, and focus on objective outcomes — we were committed to better managing homelessness, not ending it. We must focus our efforts and energies, improve our collaboration, and end the indignity of Veteran homelessness.

Last year, I committed VA to the fight to end Veteran homelessness in five years. You’ve had a year to think about it. So, what’s your verdict? — can we do this?

VA spent the past year putting together a comprehensive plan, with interim goals, that serve as milestones for measuring our progress. We are in the process of resourcing that plan. 2010 is done; you are executing it. 2011 is before the Congress, and we will work its 2012 and 2013 budget pieces this fall.

When I say you are executing the 2010 budget we funded — what I mean is that President Obama invested $3.4 billion in the homeless Veterans program this year. 85% of those dollars [$3.0 billion] are going to health care — not just general medical and dental care, but most importantly, to mental health issues — depression, PTSD, TBI, substance abuse, suicide prevention.

The remaining 15% of the 2010 dollars, $500 million, has been invested in housing and counseling programs that get homeless Veterans off the streets and into safe housing.

Our 2011 budget request, which is before the Congress, boosts overall funding to help the homeless by over 23% — from $3.4 billion this year to $4.2 billion next year. Housing-specific investments would go from $500 million in 2010 to $799 million next year — a 60% increase.

Resources are moving in the right direction, thanks to the President, but you and I have more work to do. It isn’t just about money. More is not better; better is better. We have to be smarter about how we use these resources while we have them, and put in place the relationships, the procedures, and the disciplines that get 99 cents of impact out of every dollar we spend. Goodness here is not any one organization’s agenda but what best serves our homeless Veterans. We must move to excellence in our collaborative efforts.

Thanks to the President and the Congress, the 2010 budget and the 2011 budget requests provide us resources to address the three issues of critical concern to Veterans:

  • Increasing access;
  • Reducing the claims backlog;
  • And, ending Veterans’ homelessness in five years.

Last year, we held a national summit on ending Veteran homelessness. (A number of you were there.) Following that conference, we wrote a detailed five-year plan to achieve that objective — one that emphasizes prevention rather than rescue, and ensures a “no-wrong-door” philosophy for Veterans in need of help. Veterans who are at risk of homelessness or who have just crossed into homelessness must have immediate access to our programs and services, regardless of which facility, which door, they enter seeking assistance. Any door a Veteran enters — a medical center, a regional office, a Vetcenter, a community organization — must be open, welcoming, and capable of helping.

We are expanding our existing programs and developing new ones to both prevent Veteran homelessness, and help those who are already homeless, by providing more housing, increasing access to health care and benefits, enhancing employment opportunities, and creating residential stability.

Over the next five years, our focus on ending Veteran homelessness will emphasize six strategic pillars:

  • Reaching out to and educating Veterans about our programs — both those who are homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless;
  • Ensuring treatment options are available for primary, specialty, and mental health care, including care for substance-use disorders;
  • Strengthening our strategy for preventing homelessness — key to our long-term efforts;
  • Increasing housing opportunities and providing appropriate supportive services more tailored to the needs of Veterans;
  • Providing greater financial and employment support, as well as improved benefits delivery;
  • And finally, expanding our critically important community partnerships — our success in this venture is not possible without you.

As you may know, VA partners with many community and faith-based nonprofit service providers, including some of the nation’s largest like Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army — but also, many excellent, smaller, local groups in towns and cities all across America.

One of VA’s strongest community partnerships has been GPD, our Grant and Per Diem program. Through this program, we partner with over 400 community groups — including many of you — to provide approximately 11,500 transitional housing beds and services to help Veterans reconnect with family and friends, find gainful employment, and regain productive lives.

We are currently reviewing two “notices of funding availability” that we expect will add more than 2,200 new units — including targets to increase opportunities for women and Veterans living on tribal lands. The Grant and Per Diem program has served almost 100,000 Veterans since it began in 1994, and we expect as many as 20,000 Veterans will benefit from it this year alone.

For the chronically homeless Veteran, who is “hard to serve” — those who may have refused care in the past, failed to complete previous programs, have a history of disruptive behaviors, or who do not fit easily into existing programs — the most effective option is HUD-VA Supportive Housing — HUD-VASH. Last month, HUD announced that another 8,000 vouchers had been allocated to Veterans. We expect another 1,500 vouchers to be allocated before the end of summer, so that HUD-VASH vouchers could be helping almost 30,000 homeless Veterans and their families live in permanent housing.

VA is undergoing a culture shift from trying to fit Veterans into our programs to fitting our programs to Veterans needs. We have significantly expanded the participation of homeless and formerly homeless Veterans in our CHALENG [Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups] program. CHALENG helps us define and assess the needs of homeless Veterans by giving them a chance to tell us how they think VA can deliver homeless services more effectively. In the past year, over 10,700 homeless or formerly homeless Veterans participated in CHALENG — a ten-fold increase from three years ago.

Last calendar year, we saw a 40% increase in Veterans served by Stand Downs across the nation. With the help of almost 26,000 volunteers, these Stand Downs aided more than 42,000 homeless Veterans and 6,400 family members.

Each year, 40,000 Veterans come out of prisons. 931 of the nation’s 1,300 prisons have a VA re-entry specialist seeing Veterans before their release. We have 39 VA employees who work directly with Veterans coming out of prison, and we’ve begun hiring 47 more, this year, to work with Veterans courts around the country. I cannot emphasize enough the good work of Veterans’ courts — remanding Veterans to treatment rather than incarceration. We are being given the chance to solve some problems, and we should take full advantage of the opportunity.

VA’s role in ending Veteran homelessness is largely strategic and logistical. The good fight is being conducted in the streets by the members of this coalition. This is where we actually break the downward spiral of depression, substance abuse, and unemployment, which, all too often, ends in failed relationships, homelessness, and sometimes, in suicide.

Earlier this month, we announced a new telephone hotline for homeless Veterans — 1-877-4AID-VET — to help Veterans find food, shelter, clothing, and assistance. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by the same people who staff our suicide prevention hotline. Responders are cross-trained, so they’re able to serve both populations, and all Veterans who call in receive a brief suicide screening. We are already finding that many homeless Veterans, who may be considering suicide, won’t call our suicide hotline but they will call our homeless hotline. Either way, here again, there is no wrong door to help.

So a lot has happened in the past 18 months. But we’re not doing any of this alone. VA is a fully engaged member of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) — chaired by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and directed by Barbara Poppe. We are working closely with HUD, with other members of the Interagency Council, with Congress, and with all of you, and the thousands of other stakeholders and local community organizations who have seized this initiative to end Veteran homelessness.

Our newly established Center on Homelessness Among Veterans is working with community partners and university affiliates to develop new treatment models addressing both the causes and effects of homelessness and exploring best-practices for specific homeless Veteran populations. The center has developed training for VA staff and community partners to address the unique issues of working with hard-to-serve Veterans. Some medical centers have also developed specialized clinics for hard-to-serve Veterans. These clinics are low-demand, low-barrier programs delivering health care, mental health evaluations, and social work strategies that help to meet the basic needs of these Veterans.

We are well-launched on our five-year campaign to eliminate Veteran homelessness — but that road becomes more difficult each step of the way. At the end, we will be left with the most difficult cases to address, the hard to serve. We must accept that — and begin preparing for the steepness of that climb even now as we are enjoying success in driving down the estimate in homeless Veterans. We must lay the groundwork to improve our techniques and approaches now. Every Veteran counts, and we must treat every homeless Veteran as our most important client — no matter how difficult he or she may be to deal with. We didn’t sign on for the easy cases. We signed on to end homelessness in the next five years — for all Veterans.

Once again, congratulations on two decades of devotion and outstanding leadership on behalf of homeless Veterans. We are all indebted to you.

God bless each and every one of you. God bless the men and women who serve and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great wonderful country of ours.