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Submission For The Record of National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

Chairman Michaud, Ranking Member Brown, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to present this statement to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Health. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) is honored to do so and pleased to convey its support and recommendations for the draft legislation on homelessness to amend title 38, United States Code, to make certain improvements in programs for homeless veterans administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

NCHV proudly represents over 2,300 community- and faith-based homeless veteran service providers nationwide. These groups, whom U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki calls “the real creative geniuses” in ending veteran homelessness, are largely responsible for the drastic reduction in homeless veterans over the past six years – from 250,000 on any given night in 2004 to 107,000 in 2010, according to annual VA CHALENG reports.

VA reaches an incredible number of homeless veterans through its Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program (GPD) – a transitional housing program that is the foundation of VA and community partnerships. In 2005, the department introduced the “grant program for homeless veterans with special needs,” as it is called in statute, into the GPD in order to serve four critical demographics:

  • Women, including those with dependent children
  • Frail elderly
  • Terminally ill
  • Chronically mentally ill

The draft legislation in question would directly affect the GPD and the special needs grant program.

Background 

On Oct. 1, 2009, NCHV President and CEO John Driscoll testified before this Subcommittee on the need for four bills: H.R. 2504, H.R. 2559, H.R. 2735 and H.R. 3073. An amended version of the third bill, H.R. 2735, became wrapped into Section 3 of H.R. 4810, the End Veteran Homelessness Act of 2010. That language appears identical to Section 3 of the current draft legislation, “Improvement of Payments for Providing Services to Homeless Veterans.” H.R. 4810 passed in the House by a 413-0 vote and was referred to the Senate.

Improving Grant and Per Diem Payments

GPD grantees are reimbursed for providing transitional housing and supportive services based on the reimbursements provided to state veterans’ homes. Depending on the amount of other federal funding that service providers receive, these rates—which peak at $35.84 per veteran, per day—may be reduced. This policy is outdated considering the cost of comprehensive services that individuals need to rebuild their lives. By striking “per diem” from current statute and inserting “annual cost of furnishing services,” this bill would enable organizations to better serve homeless veteran clients with serious mental illness, substance abuse issues, histories of incarceration and disabilities.

Community-based organizations serving these populations need round-the-clock clinical staff, medications handlers, security personnel and unique facility safety enhancements. Our concern is that without this provision, community-based organizations will continue to struggle to provide transitional housing and supports for these hard-to-serve homeless veterans.

Section 3 of the draft legislation would allow providers to use GPD funds to match other federal funding sources. Other federal service grants not only allow but encourage cross-agency collaboration. Penalizing GPD providers – who currently cannot draw GPD funds in anticipation of allowable, budgeted program expenses – by reducing per diem payments based on other income is counterproductive and impairs the delivery of services to homeless veterans. If service providers are going to end veteran homelessness in the next four years, they must be afforded every opportunity to make their projects work.

VA deserves commendation for its increased investment in the GPD. However, since its inception the program has undergone significant changes in complexity, scope of services and targeted populations. This draft legislation would provide several modifications needed to advance the program’s success preparing homeless veterans for transition to permanent housing and independent living.

Expanding the Special Needs Grant Program

The other major section of this draft bill, Section 2, “Enhancement of the Grant Program for Homeless Veterans with Special Needs,” would modify and expand VA’s special needs grant program. The program is currently limited to GPD recipients and authorized at $5 million through fiscal year (FY) 2011. This legislation would open the program to new eligible public or nonprofit entities, and increase its authorization to $21 million by FY 2013.

NCHV recognizes this as an opportunity to widen the availability of services to homeless veterans whom the VA and its community partners have identified as needing specialized care. Women veterans, the fastest-growing subgroup of the homeless veteran population, will particularly benefit from these changes to the GPD. By VA’s estimates, women will account for about 15 percent of the nation’s veterans within 10 years. Although we do not yet know the full service needs of the latest generation of service members returning from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we do know that specialized care will be required for single-parent homeless families and those at high risk of homelessness due to health and economic challenges.

Despite NCHV’s overall support for this bill, we recommend Sec. 2 (g) (5)—which requires special needs grant recipients “to seek to employ homeless veterans and formerly homeless veterans in positions created for purposes of the grant for which those veterans are qualified” – be removed.

The meaning of this provision is not clear. The VA Special Needs Grants are primarily to provide transitional housing and supportive services to homeless veterans in specialized settings, but are not specifically designed to ensure employment. Most organizations that receive GPD funds from the VA provide employment preparation, job search and placement assistance, but those are funded through Department of Labor programs, including the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, and the Disabled Veterans Outreach Program and Local Veterans Employment Representatives at all one-stop career centers across the nation. This provision seems to go against the universal objective of avoiding costly duplication of services.

In Summation

The Health Subcommittee has provided leadership for the most significant pieces of homeless veterans legislation advanced in the 111th Congress. Its members and staffs have played a powerful role in the newfound campaign to end veteran homelessness in five years. With one of those years already behind us, there is an even greater sense of urgency for action: We must ensure that our programmatic approaches are adaptable so that service providers’ efforts are not stunted by outdated policies.

From the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to the thousands of community- and faith-based organizations NCHV represents across this nation, we share a common goal of ending veteran homelessness. We are honored to be a part of this historic undertaking, and we look forward to continuing to work with this Subcommittee in order to achieve that reality.