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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
Washington, DC
May 29, 2013

Good morning, everyone. It's great to be back with this Coalition for Homeless Veterans. I appreciate that warm welcome—like coming home.

  • Barbara (Poppe), thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you for your leadership of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.
  • Let me also acknowledge HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan— it's a personal privilege to be working with him to end Veteran and chronic homelessness in this country;
  • John Driscoll, thank you for your leadership of NCHV and for inviting me here today;
  • Kelly Caffarelli and Natalie Abetamarco—my thanks to both the Home Depot Foundation and Citi Community Development for supporting this conference and for your commitment to helping end Veterans' homelessness in this country;
  • VA colleagues, fellow Veterans, and all of you in this Coalition who have committed to giving Veterans hope, a home, and a future. I am honored to be here.

We've all been running hard run for four years now, and we have made a difference. We know it, in our heads and our hearts. We know we can do this, and in a couple of years, we're all going to be able to say we did something magnificent and worthwhile: We took every homeless Veteran off of the streets of this country—this rich and powerful country, which enjoys so much because men and women like them willingly go into harm's way for all the rest of us.

Many of you were working on this long before I joined the race four years ago. We have made significant progress. On a single night in January 2012, there were an estimated 62,619 Veterans living on the streets, and that was a 17 percent decline from 2009. Good on us.

I currently chair the USICH, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. This council, led by Barbara Poppe, synchronizes 19 federal agencies in the fight to end homelessness. This year's ICH Vice-Chair is Secretary Shaun Donovan. I chair the ICH this year; he will chair it in 2014. Between us and with Barbara Poppe's help, we have crafted a two-year agenda to assure much needed continuity going into that all important year of 2015.

We're asking all 19 of our federal partners on the council to fill in the gaps necessary to offer comprehensive support to Veterans looking to exit homelessness, and we are pushing our member agencies towards a data driven, performance measured standard to assure that the federal government is doing all it can to help end Veteran homelessness in 2015.

Last August, VA started airing public service announcements on television encouraging Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and their family members and friends to call our National Homeless Veterans Call Center at 1-877-4AID-VET. These ads were distributed to more than 1,200 television stations across the country and have been aired over 22,000 times. If you haven't seen them on your local station, let us know. Between us, we need to encourage your regional affiliates to air them. It's for the sake of our Veterans—help us get the word out.

Some good news: VA's Homeless Veterans Call Center has helped us to connect. Launched in the summer of 2010, total calls went up 123 percent from 2011 to 2012. In the first four months of fiscal year 2013, calls are up 93 percent.

We also now have a homeless registry, thanks to Vince Kane and his team in Philadelphia. It provides us a dynamic database with which to both measure outcomes and account for investments. As of September 2012, there were approximately 500,000 unique entries in this national data warehouse. With this data, we're able to see who was helped, in what ways, and whether it was effective and then devise better solutions to our two-fold challenge: rescuing Veterans who are already homeless while simultaneously preventing those at risk of homelessness from slipping into that downward spiral that ends on the streets.

A parallel effort—beginning last fall, we have started screening all Veterans seeking healthcare in our medical system to identify Veterans who are homeless today and those who at risk of homelessness. Of the over one million Veterans screened to date, we have identified nearly 14,000 of them who are homeless or facing housing instability and an additional 16,906 Veterans who are at risk of homelessness. This allows us to validate our registry for the homeless and expand it for those at risk, who we never see well enough but must if prevention will be effective.

Our outreach continues to Veterans who are involved with our justice system, both through Veterans Courts and those being released from prisons each year, a population known to be at risk for homelessness. We now also have 178 VA employees providing Veterans in the justice system timely access to VA mental health and substance abuse services prior to incarceration to avoid unnecessary criminalization of those with mental health concerns or treatable substance abuse issues. They need treatment, not incarceration. We helped over 27,000 Veterans in the justice system last year alone.

When it comes to housing, we've had good success with "housing first," a common sense approach to get homeless Veterans housed first, then meet their clinical and other needs. Over 400 Veterans have exited homelessness and are now living in permanent supportive housing under this model.

In Utah, the report is that chronic homelessness among Veterans has been reduced to an effective zero; they have a working system in place with enough resources to house every chronically homeless Veteran in the state, and they credit "housing first" with this success.

Many local communities have rapidly re-housed homeless Veterans through our SSVF program—Supportive Services for Veteran Families—and the HUD-VASH initiative.

In fiscal year 2012, our Supportive Services for Veteran Families grants served over 35,000 Veterans and their family members, including nearly 9,000 children—not only Veterans, but members of their immediate family as well. It also allows us to prevent at-risk Veterans from becoming homeless and rapidly re-house those just evicted, by providing eligible Veterans families the case management services and assistance they need to obtain VA and other benefits—like childcare, legal, financial planning, transportation, among others. Nearly 90 percent of those discharged from SSVF have found permanent housing. We will continue to resource this highly successful grant program and anticipate distributing another $300 million to our community partners this fiscal year.

My thanks, once again, to Secretary Donovan—the HUD-VASH voucher program that we administer jointly with HUD has been a game changer. HUD-VASH vouchers are critical to ending Veterans homelessness in 2015. With the continued leadership of President Obama, the support of Congress, and our partnership with HUD, we will continue to leverage HUD-VASH to help the men and women who earned these benefits the opportunity to live productive, meaningful lives. There are currently over 46,000 vouchers in use by Veterans. This next fiscal year, VA has requested $278 million for case management, a $33.5 million increase from FY13.

Our grant and per diem program has funded more than 600 projects and over 15,000 beds nationwide. We estimate a capacity to serve approximately 40,000 Veterans this year and in 2014. Thanks to all of you for helping us better tune them to the needs of homeless Veterans.

So, where do we go from here? VA is doing what we can to focus the right resources in the right way to make sure we will meet our 2015 goal. We will continue to push for early detection of housing instability to help provide Veterans with prevention assistance. We will continue to work with federal partners and community organizations to ensure that Veterans who do not qualify for VA benefits can receive access to non-VA care and benefits to end or prevent homelessness. We'll continue to grow our Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant program and work with HUD to improve data collection for the Point In Time count. We conducted another PIT count this past January 2013, and when those numbers are tallied, I am confident it will show another decline in the count. But whatever that number ends up being, it won't be good enough. So long as a single Veteran lives on our streets, we have work to do, and I challenge you to bring them all in to where the rest of us live. I have said from the beginning, the climb will get steeper the closer we get to the summit. All the easy cases will have been housed. In the end, we will have the toughest, most difficult cases to solve—some prior failures, some behavioral problems, even some serious mental health issues.

I understand that. I don't think we signed up for just the easy cases, did we? The President didn't qualify his statement when he said, "Until we reach a day when not a single Veteran sleeps on our nation's streets, our work remains unfinished." except for the difficult cases? So we are not going to rest until we rescue every homeless Veteran who lives on the streets of America today. We've given ourselves two more years to do this, and in the words of the U.S. Cavalry, we're burning daylight. There is work to be done; let's get on with it.

Over the last three years, we've made the investments, built the infrastructure, and implemented the programs that ensure Veterans get the quality care and support that they need to exit homelessness. Between 2009 and 2014, funding increased for:

  • VA overall: roughly 50 percent
  • VA healthcare: roughly 30 percent
  • Mental Health: roughly 57 percent
  • PTSD: approximately 47 percent
  • TBI: about 21 percent
  • Veterans homelessness: approximately 270 percent

Did you hear me? Two-hundred and seventy percent. This year we have budgeted $1.35 billion for Veterans homelessness, an increase of 33 percent over the 2012 level. Our 2014 budget request is nearly $1.4 billion. This is not about resources. We have successfully presented your compelling arguments for better funding of our homeless Veterans requirements through the budget process.

The President has led this effort, and the Congress has supported his initiatives. This is about us—our willingness to roll our sleeves up, get our knuckles in the dirt, and drive down the number of street dwelling homeless Veterans.

In central Texas, they have a saying: "You can't wring your hands and roll you sleeves up at the same time." You can do one or the other, and at VA and in this coalition, we have rolled our sleeves up. We have made progress, but it simply isn't good enough for those Veterans who need and await our help.

Over the next two years, we must raise partnering to a new level--greater intensity and synergy—to find, engage, and rescue every homeless Veteran from the streets of America. Not simply find and engage—the key word is rescue. We get no points for good intentions or good effort.

In our engagement, we must gain the essential data on the toughest cases in the inventory. If they are prior failures from other programs, why and what are we going to do differently this time? If they are behavioral issues or have severe mental health issues, how do we get them help safely? If we aren't able to break down these obstacles, we may never get them off the streets—this may be our last best chance to fix this longstanding blight on our country. We must earn their trust—their belief that we care, that we are not going to go away, that this is not about today's numbers.

We should let the severely challenged of our homeless Veterans know that we are going to ask them the same question every time we see them: "John, is today the day you leave the streets?' "Mary, are ready to come in?" Persistence counts. Persistence counts, and we are going to win this contest.

The more times we ask that question of each chronically homeless Veteran, the better our chances are of getting them off the street and getting that "yes." As hockey hall of famer Wayne Gretsky used to say, "I missed 100% of the shots I didn't take." Well, let's keep asking that question and expect that one of these times, we'll notch a goal.

VA has established CRRCs, Community Resource and Referral Centers, in the midst of the homeless footprints in some of our largest cities—17 of them, with an additional 13 funded this fiscal year—where homeless Veterans can shower, launder their clothing, get access to healthcare, check on benefits and other services, and get something hot to eat or drink. These are our opportunities to ask that question, take that shot on goal. One day, when we least expect it, as they used to say on Candid Camera, we'll get that "yes."

In closing, thank you, once again, for your commitment and your hard work. In this final push, we need all hands pulling on the rope. I am honored to be in this fight with you.

God bless our Veterans, especially those in greatest need of our prayers and our help. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.