Connecting Vets: Veterans Affairs lawmakers introduce major bill to help homeless vets during pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic continues in the United States, veteran advocates have increasingly warned that the economic downturn could lead to more homeless vets.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs is limited in what help it can offer. VA even put out a public call for donations to help.
Now, lawmakers are stepping in aiming to change that.
Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., and Mike Levin, D-Calif., in the House and Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., in the Senate, introduced the Homeless Veteran Coronavirus Response Act Thursday.
Thousands of homeless veterans have seen shelters shutter, funding and resources dry up and access to services all but evaporate as the virus spread across the country, advocates said. The new bill aims to allow VA to use existing funds for a wider range of services to help.
Congress already provided VA nearly $20 billion in emergency pandemic response funds, and about $300 million of that $20 billion was allocated for homeless veterans' needs, though advocates say they need closer to $1.3 billion.
The $300 million was intended to help house homeless vets in hotels and pay for testing for those who fell ill. VA does not currently have the authority to provide food, phones or other supplies to homeless veterans, VA officials told Connecting Vets.
Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless on any given night in America, and more than 1.4 million were at risk of becoming homeless before the pandemic struck. Now, advocates say there could be a spike in the number of homeless veterans, a population at elevated risk for the virus.
Avoiding a major spike in veteran homelessness "will require significant investment in programs to serve homeless veterans," Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, told lawmakers previously.
“The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of veteran homelessness that we were already facing, and we must do more to get our nation’s heroes off the streets,” Levin said in a statement Thursday. “Our legislation takes commonsense steps to facilitate shelters, transitional housing and other services for veterans and their families in the face of public health challenges. We must expand these services as soon as possible."
“During this pandemic, we want to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable populations -- especially those who have honorably served our nation,” Bilirakis said. “This bipartisan bill provides much-needed emergency relief."
Specifically, the bill would:
- Allow VA to use existing homelessness funding to provide food, shelter, transportation, clothing, blankets, hygiene items and "telecommunications equipment" during the COVID-19 emergency;
- Allow VA to collaborate with outside groups to manage the use of its property, buildings or other facilities as temporary shelters;
- Increases the maximum Grant and Per Diem (GPD) per diem rate;
- Allows GPD providers to use per diem payments for food, shelter, clothing, blankets, hygiene items and more, as well as formerly homeless veterans now living in facilities operated by GPD recipients;
- Allows VA to provide GPD payments for additional traditional housing beds without notice or competition during the crisis;
- Allows VA to waive some inspection and code requirements during the emergency if the facility meets local safety requirements, to allow for quicker identification of alternative sites, facilitate social distancing or isolation and more;
- Requires VA ensure veterans participating in a VA homeless program have access to VA telehealth services they are eligible for during the pandemic emergency.
Top Veterans Affairs lawmakers in the House and Senate also sponsored the legislation.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates economic challenges and veteran unemployment rises to almost 12 percent, we must take immediate steps to assist the tens of thousands of homeless veterans,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif. “This new legislation ... will help ensure we can support our most vulnerable veterans throughout this crisis by providing food, safe shelter and access to VA telehealth services."
“Supporting veterans who are homeless or at-risk by providing housing, healthcare, and other necessities has long been one of our committee’s top priorities,” said Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn. “I am proud to cosponsor this bill ... to continue our work to make sure that the most vulnerable veterans are taken care of during the COVID-19 pandemic and long after.”
To help VA and homeless veterans:
- Donate food, cell phones or household goods by contacting your local voluntary service office.
- To make large donatiosn or donations to multiple locations, contact Sabrina Clark, director of VA Voluntary Service at VHACO10B2AStaff@va.gov.
- Use the eDonate option on VA's website to donate online and be sure to specify that you want the money to be used to help veterans who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness.