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Submission For The Record of Ronald F. Chamrin, American Legion, Assistant Director, Economic Commission

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to submit The American Legion’s view on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program. 

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 Department of Veterans Affairs Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups (CHALENG) report estimates that there are nearly 200,000 veterans that are homeless at any point in time.  According to the February 2007 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2007), veterans account for 19 percent of all homeless people in America.

Since 2001, approximately 300,000 servicemembers are becoming veterans every year. This large influx of veterans, some of whom have high risk factors of becoming homeless, is unnerving.  The mistake in incorrectly failing to recognize the increase in homelessness amongst Vietnam veterans in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s cannot be made again. 

According to the Urban Institute report in relation to the 1980’s spike in homeless veterans (Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve, Findings of the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients):  “…some observers felt that the problem was a temporary consequence of the recession of 1981-1982, and would go away when the economy recovered, while others argued that the problem stemmed from a lack of affordable housing and that homeless clients were simply a cross section of poor Americans.”  This 2000 study stated that of current homeless veterans:  “21 percent served before the Vietnam era (before August 1964); 47 percent served during the Vietnam era (between August 1964 and April 1975); and 57 percent served since the Vietnam era (after April 1975).  Many have served in more than one time period.”

In order to prevent a national epidemic of homeless veterans in the upcoming years, measures must be taken to assist those that are chronically homeless.  Steps must also be taken to prevent the future homelessness of veterans and their families. 

Therefore, The American Legion strongly supports funding the Grant and Per Diem Program for a five-year period (instead of annually) and supports increasing the funding level to $200 million annually.

The American Legion Homeless Veterans Task Force

The American Legion coordinates a Homeless Veterans Task Force (HVTF) amongst its 55 departments.  Our goal is to augment existing homeless veteran providers, the VA Network Homeless Coordinators, and the Department of Labor’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP), Veterans Workforce Investment Program (VWIP), Disabled Veterans Outreach Personnel (DVOPs) and Local Veterans Employment Representative (LVERs).  In addition to augmentation, we then attempt to fill in the gaps where there is no coverage.  Each of The American Legion’s Departments contains an HVTF chairman and an employment chairman.  These two individuals coordinate activities with The American Legion’s local posts within their state.  The three-tiered coordination of these two chairmen and numerous local posts attempt to symbiotically assist homeless veterans and prevent future homelessness.

The American Legion has conducted training with the assistance of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), DOL-VETS, Project Homeless Connect, and VA on how to apply for Federal grants in various assistance programs, most notably the “Stand Down” and Grant and Per Diem programs.  It is our goal to assist the Grant and Per Diem program by enabling individual posts and homeless providers to use The American Legion as a force multiplier.  We may not have the job-specific expertise in the fields of social work and mental health, but we do have 2.7 million volunteers with an impressive network of resources within their communities. 

The American Legion augments homeless veteran providers with transportation, food, clothing, cash and in-kind donations, technical assistance, employment placement, employment referral, claims assistance, veterans’ benefits assistance, and in some cases housing for homeless veterans.  The American Legion department service officers are accredited representatives that assist homeless veterans with their VA compensation and pension claims, and are fierce advocates for assuring that all VA benefits are afforded to the unfortunate homeless veterans that they may encounter.

Potential Homeless Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)

OEF/OIF veterans are at high risk of becoming homeless.  Combat veterans of OEF/OIF and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in need of assistance are beginning to trickle into the nation's community-based veterans’ service organizations’ homeless programs. Already stressed by an increasing need for assistance by post-Vietnam Era veterans and strained budgets, homeless services providers are deeply concerned about the inevitable rising tide of combat veterans who will soon be requesting their support.

Since 9/11, over 800,000 American men and women have served or are serving in a war zone.  Rotations of troops returning home from Iraq are now a common occurrence.  Military analysts and government sources say the military deployments, then the reintegration of combat veterans into the civilian society, is unlike anything the nation has experienced since the end of the Vietnam War.

The signs of an impending crisis are clearly seen in VA's own numbers.  Under considerable pressure to stretch dollars, VA estimates it can provide assistance to about 100,000 homeless veterans each year, only 20 percent of the more than 500,000 who will need supportive services.  Hundreds of community-based organizations nationwide struggle to provide assistance to as many of the other 80 percent as possible, but the need far exceeds available resources.

VA’s HCHV reports 1,049 OEF/OIF era homeless veterans with an average age of 33.  HCHV further reports that nearly 65 percent of these homeless veterans experienced combat.  Now receiving combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan daily, VA is reporting that a high percentage of those casualties need treatment for mental health problems.  That is consistent with studies conducted by VA and other agencies that conclude anywhere from 15 to more than 35 percent of combat veterans will experience some clinical degree of PTSD, depression or other psychosocial problems. 

Homeless Women Veterans and Children

Homeless veteran service providers’ clients have historically been almost exclusively male.  That is changing as more women veterans, especially those with young children, are seeking assistance.  Access to gender-appropriate care for these veterans is essential.

The FY 2006 VA CHALENG (Community Housing Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group) report states, “Homeless providers continue to report increases in the number of homeless veterans with families (i.e., dependent children) being served at their programs.  Ninety-four sites (68 percent of all sites) reported a total of 989 homeless veteran families seen, with Los Angeles seeing the most families (156).  This was a 10 percent increase over the previous year of 896 reported families.  Homeless veterans with dependents present a challenge to VA homeless programs. Many VA housing programs are veteran-specific. VA homeless workers must often find other community housing resources to place the entire family – or the dependent children separately.  Separating family members can create hardship.”

To assist women and veterans with families, The American Legion supports adequate funding for all domiciliary programs for all qualified veterans. 

VA Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program Reauthorization

In 1992, VA was given authority to establish the Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program under the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Service Programs Act of 1992, Public Law 102-590.  The Grant and Per Diem Program is offered annually (as funding permits) by VA to fund community agencies providing service to homeless veterans. VA can provide grants and per diem payments to help public and nonprofit organizations establish and operate supportive housing and/or service centers for homeless veterans.  There was an initial lag in the congressional authorization and appropriations for this program that delayed the delivery of funding 2 years after the initial legislation passed and only 15 grants were awarded.  We have observed that the staff of the program has been working diligently and should be commended, but the central office staff could use additional members to expand the program to reach even more participants. 

The current level of 300 programs and 8,000 beds is not enough to assist 200,000 homeless veterans.  Reports of an additional 3,000 beds to come into service as soon as needed construction, renovation or repairs have been completed will bring the total to 11,000 or about 5 percent capacity of all homeless veterans. 

Funds are available for assistance in the form of grants to provide transitional housing (for up to 24 months) with supportive services.  Funds can also be used for supportive services in a service center facility for homeless veterans not in conjunction with supportive housing, or to purchase vans. VA can provide up to $31.30 for each day of care a veteran receives in a transitional housing program approved under VA’s Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program.  This token amount is far too little to fully assist a single veteran.  Finally, all providers must justify that their costs are attributed to veterans.

The American Legion is concerned with the ebb and flow of the homeless veteran population and assert that measures should be enacted that allows a provider to always maintain a space for a homeless veteran.  Due to the transient and drifting nature of chronically homeless veterans, seasonal weather changes (allowing more homeless veterans to venture outside), and other factors, there are periods when GPD providers may have an empty bed.  If a provider has an empty space dedicated for a homeless veteran under the program and (due to factors out of their control) a bed remains empty for a period of time, they have occasional difficulty justifying the grant and therefore may be penalized.  However, there are many instances in which a random appearing homeless veteran requires their assistance and a bed must always be ever ready.

Unfortunately, we have observed that many homeless veteran providers choose not to apply for funding from this program due to difficult mechanisms.  As stated above, the accounting process required for reimbursement is in constant flux during the year and the strain of accurately reporting is laden on small community-based providers.  Additionally, there are other Federal programs that can provide monetary assistance to homeless veterans, yet the GPD does not allow these funds to be used as a match for VA programs. This often discourages participation.  However, other Federal programs do allow VA funds to be used as a match.  VA’s GPD program requires unique flexibility due to the nature of the funding, homeless veteran providers, and homeless veterans.

VA reports success in their performance measures to increase access and availability to both primary health care and specialty care within 30 and 60 days.  Short-term assistance (30 and 60 days) is imperative in order to prevent chronic homelessness.  Many times, a veteran may be in transition due to loss of a job, a medical issue, poor finances, or some other factor and only requires a short-term transitional shelter that can be provided by the GPD program.  In FY 2006, VA reported that they provided transitional housing services to nearly 15,500 homeless veterans and expects to assist 18,000 veterans for FY 2007.  It is imperative that these numbers continue to increase and be adjusted to meet demand; the consequences will be a stagnant, steady number of homeless veterans rather than a decrease of the number of homeless veterans.

Departments of Housing and Urban Development - Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Homeless Program

The American Legion advocates for increased funding for the Grant and Per Diem program and recently adopted a resolution to require mandatory funding for the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-Veterans Affairs (VA) Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Homeless Program.

The American Legion supports funding for vouchers for the HUD-VASH Program be set aside and transferred to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs from amounts made available for rental assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher program.  The Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-95) codified the HUD-VASH Program, which provides permanent housing subsidies and case management services to homeless veterans with mental and addictive disorders.  Under the HUD-VASH Program, VA screens homeless veterans for program eligibility and provides case management services to enrollees.  HUD allocates rental subsidies from its Housing Choice Voucher program to VA, which then distributes them to the enrollees.  A decade ago, there were approximately 2000 vouchers earmarked for veterans in need of permanent housing.  Today, less than half that amount is available for distribution. 

The Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006, P.L 109-461, re-authorizes appropriations for additional rental assistance vouchers for veterans.  In FY 2007, there will be 500 vouchers available for veterans and increased to 2,500 by FY 2011.  At a time when the number of homeless veterans on any given night is approximately 200,000, the need for safe, affordable, and permanent housing is imperative.  The Senate passed its fiscal 2008 Transportation-Housing spending bill (HR 3074) that funds programs at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The House FY 2008 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) appropriations bill, H.R. 3074, which passed the House on July 24, includes funding for incremental vouchers, specifically targeted to the non-elderly disabled population and homeless veterans. The bill provides $30 million for these vouchers.  Of the incremental vouchers provided, 1,000 vouchers are to be provided for homeless veterans, in accordance with the HUD-VASH Program.

The Senate recently passed the THUD appropriations bill, which provides $75 million for new vouchers for the HUD-VASH Program.  Funding, if enacted, should be sufficient to provide assistance for 6,000 vouchers affecting approximately 8,000 to 10,000 homeless veterans. 

Census of Homeless Veterans

The VA CHALENG program, NCHV, HUD and numerous homeless veteran providers have all collaborated to make rather accurate estimates on the number of homeless veterans on the street each night.  This number, approximately 200,000 each night, is a travesty.  Because of the numerous systems in place to attempt to count the number of homeless veterans, additional funding should be directed to programs assisting and preventing homeless veterans and not entirely to assist a census program in counting homeless veterans.  Funding would be better spent on programs and not just exclusively on counting.

CONCLUSION

The Homeless Grant and Per Diem program is effective and should be continued but augmented with HUD-VASH Program vouchers.  With 300,000 service members becoming veterans each year and the increased visibility and outreach of all veteran programs administered by VA, the availability of transitional housing must be increased.  Our observations have shown that when the GPD program is allocated money, they are successful in distributing grants and administering their program and are only limited by the total dollar amount of funds available.

The American Legion looks forward to continue working with the Subcommittee to assist the nation’s homeless veterans and to prevent future homelessness.  Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, this concludes my testimony.