The secretary of veterans affairs today announced the framework of a bold initiative to end homelessness among veterans within five years.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki outlined the comprehensive plan to an audience of VA officials, other government representatives and private-sector homeless outreach organizers at the VA National Summit Ending Homelessness Among Veterans here. He called the goal an ambitious one that will take a nationwide collaborative effort to be successful.
"I learned long ago that there are never any absolutes in life, and a goal of zero homeless veterans sure sounds like an absolute," Shinseki said. "But unless we set ambitious targets for ourselves, we would not be giving this our very best efforts. No one who has served this nation as veterans should ever have to be living on the streets."
VA officials estimate that about 131,000 veterans live on the streets throughout the United States. In 2003, the estimate was around 195,000. Although progress is being made, much work is left to be done, especially at the local levels, Shinseki said.
The five-year plan involves efforts from the Education, Labor, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development departments. Also, hard work from the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, state VA directors, veteran service organizations and national, state and local community groups is needed.
"Your local initiatives are crucial," Shinseki said. "That's where the creative fires are built, stoked, and bellowed.
"Sitting in Washington with a 2,000-mile screwdriver trying to fine-tune things at the local level never works," he added. "While much of the effort may begin in Washington, we won't even begin to reach our most modest targets unless local efforts are resourced, creative, aggressive, determined, and successful."
Veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides. They're also among the leaders in unemployment, the secretary said. Knowing these facts, Shinseki said, provides a baseline to realistically address the homeless issue by attacking the problem before it starts.
The plan, Shinseki said, speaks to a different approach from past VA efforts. The distinction, he noted, lies in VA's attempt at prevention rather than simply getting veterans off the streets.
"If we want to end veteran homelessness, we must attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness," he said. "We must offer education and jobs, treat depression and fight substance abuse, prevent suicides and provide safe housing."
Shinseki noted the Post 9/11 GI Bill gives veterans better education opportunities. He also said that in fiscal 2008, VA granted $1.6 billion in contracts to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans and encourages other government agencies to do so as well.
"These initiatives are intended to enable veteran-owned small businesses to survive the economic downturn, so they can create jobs for other veterans and help the nation through this economic recovery," he said.
Also, VA will spend more than $3 billion specifically to reduce homelessness, the majority of which is dedicated to medical services, and the remainder -- about $500 million -- on homeless programs, Shinseki said. He added that VA and the Defense Department officially joined forces last week to improve mental health care among servicemembers and veterans.
"The psychological wounds of war affect every generation of veterans," he said. "We know if we diagnose and treat, people usually get better. If we don't, they won't, and sometimes their problems become debilitating. We understand the stigma issue, but we are not going to be dissuaded. We are not giving up on any of our veterans with mental health challenges -- definitely not the homeless."
The secretary also talked about housing for homeless veterans, describing the VA's initiative launched last month to award more than $17 million in grants to create more than 1,100 beds for homeless veterans. The transitional housing will allow "those who slip through our safety nets" to leverage access to VA health care and other benefits, he said. VA officials expect roughly 20,000 veterans to take part in this program this year.
Lastly, Shinseki spoke about VA's concern for incarcerated veterans released from long-term psychiatric care. He noted that an estimated 40,000 veterans are released each year from prison, and if their transition through medical care and employment training are improved, their chances of being re-institutionalized or ending up homeless will lessen.
"We have to do it all -- no missed opportunities in going from 131,000 to zero," he said. "If we are going to end veteran homelessness in five years, we must be efficient, effective, determined, creative and resourceful. We have to get 60 seconds of running out of every minute of homeless work. We have to get 99 cents out of every dollar to end homelessness. We must partner, collaborate, cooperate, and help each other in synergistic ways."