San Diego Union Tribune: Homeless veterans take center stage at bipartisan congressional hearing in San Diego

August 22, 2019
In The News

Veterans’ advocates and housing experts described challenges and possible solutions for sheltering homeless veterans during a bipartisan congressional hearing in Oceanside Thursday.

Members of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs — including Democratic Riverside Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of the committee; San Diego County Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, who chairs the subcommittee, San Diego County Democratic Rep. Scott Peters and Florida Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis — listened to expert testimony.

California has 8.5 percent of the nation’s veterans living here and about 28 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans, said Ginny Puddlefoot, executive officer of the California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council.

California voters approved a proposition in 2014 that used $600 million to create a Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program, which has completed 17 projects that provided 576 affordable housing units currently occupied by veterans.

Another 47 projects with 1,772 units total are in various stages of development in the state, she said.

Last year voters also authorized a $1 billion bond to support a CalVet home loan program, which provides financing to help veterans purchase homes.

Levin praised the work done over the past decade to try to serve homeless veterans.

“There’s no question we’ve taken significant steps to get our heroes the service they need, with roughly 50,000 fewer veterans experiencing homelessness than a decade ago,” he said.

“However, we have much work still to do before we meet our goal, especially in California where 28 percent of our homeless veterans are located .... We are a state and a nation with many resources, which means we have no excuse to fail those who have proudly served in uniform.”

Puddlefoot said there are lessons to be learned from effective local efforts, such as the one in Riverside County, where homelessness among veterans in Riverside County has become rare, brief, and non-recurring. Many organizations and entities in the region bought in to collaborating, she said, to provide a comprehensive approach to tailoring services to veterans and offering long-term case management.

“It’s that collaborative piece of bringing everyone to the table,” said Puddlefoot. “In some places it is happening but in a lot of places it is very siloed, which means all the right people are not in the room to make it happen.”

Panelists also focused on the HUD-VASH program, a housing choice voucher that provides rental assistance to homeless veterans and their families and combines it with Veterans Affairs case management and clinical services.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who is a Marine veteran, told the committee that the VASH program provides critical funding to support veteran households. He asked that they make the program’s funding more secure.

Fletcher added that the federal government could help the VASH program by finding ways to incentivize landlords to accept the vouchers, because some landlords are reluctant to participate.

Whole communities also resist efforts to build housing for homeless veterans, Fletcher saide. Although people like to support veterans, there is some resistance to building units catering to veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance abuse or some kind of mental illness, experts told the panel.

Fletcher said there need to be more efforts to address the stigma surrounding mental health treatment for veterans.

“We as a society still have a stigma around the unseen wounds of war that is preventing veterans when they transition out from getting help,” Fletcher said.

“Getting that help is what will keep them housed, keep them employed, and keep them with a life of purpose. We have to deal with the downstream issues of those who are suffering.”

Matt Schillinburg, an Army veteran and commander of the American Legion Post 146, told the panel that the HUD-VASH program eligibility requirements should be made clearer to facilitate veterans applying to the program.

It’s important to help veterans make the transition to civilian life, he said, adding that each vet should be assigned a Veteran Service Officer to help make sure their information is accurate in the VA system.

“Success needs to be to help prevent and preempt veteran’s homelessness,” said Schillinburg. “That means providing a smooth transition, with all available resources for the transitioning veterans and their families, and also a safety net of available resources when life takes a wrong turn.”

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