Our Homeless Veterans: A Moral Disgrace for Our Nation

House Committee on Veterans Affairs

April 9, 2008, Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, led by Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA), held a hearing to examine the effectiveness of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless programs.  The hearing focused on the need to improve direct service programs designed to help veterans with self-sufficiency and prevention programs that identify vulnerable veterans and service members.
VA recently announced the number of veterans homeless on a typical night has declined 21 percent in the past year.  VA credits that decline to the services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and its partners in community and faith-based organizations, plus changing demographics and improvements in survey techniques.  The homeless veteran population fell from 195,000 to about 154,000. 

“Homelessness in America is a national tragedy and the presence of homeless veterans today is a moral disgrace for this nation,” said Chairman Filner.  “There are many compassionate people across this country that are involved in successful treatment and service programs.  But we are not solving this problem.  We need to do more.” 

Research shows that veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population.  VA is the largest single provider of direct service to homeless veterans, reaching 25 percent of homeless veterans a year through their various programs.  VA relies heavily on its federal, state and community based partners to assure a full range of services for homeless veterans.

Prior to becoming homeless, a large number of veterans at risk have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder or have addictions acquired during or worsened by their military service.  These conditions can interrupt their ability to keep a job, establish savings, and in some cases, maintain family harmony.  Veterans’ family, social, and professional networks may have been broken due to extensive mobility while in service or lengthy periods away from their hometowns and their civilian jobs.  These problems are directly traceable to their experience in military service or to their return to civilian society without having had appropriate transitional support.

Approximately 1,500 homeless veterans are from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Witnesses expressed concern that such an early presence of veterans from the current conflicts at shelters did not bode well for the next generation of veterans.  Advocates also believe that the intense repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable. Panelists provided a number of recommendations to the Committee that would help end and prevent homelessness among the nation’s veterans.  Recommendations included increasing the appropriation of the Grant Per Diem program which is used to fund community agencies that provide services to homeless veterans.  Panelists also discussed the need to improve access to mental health care, provide improved job counseling services and collaborate with the military to better identify at-risk veterans. 

Testimony provided by Phil Landis, CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego, described the needs of homeless treatment facilities and service providers.  “After becoming clean and sober, gaining life sustaining employment, and getting physically healthy, our veterans need affordable supportive housing, both transitional and permanent. Studies have demonstrated that the longer a person stays in a supportive environment, the greater the likelihood of long term success is.  We need additional funding to build or purchase additional transitional/permanent housing beds, not just in San Diego or California, but throughout the United States, in any city where there resides a veteran who for what ever reason must spend the night on the street, under a bridge or in a doorway.  We also need additional funding to expand the supportive services that are provided, specifically weekly case management and therapy.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is meeting the challenge of providing services and treatment of our newest veterans head on. However, resources seem to be limited and the need continues to escalate. Though the VA budget for healthcare has steadily increased, more needs to be done.”

The 110th Congress has taken action to prevent homelessness and provide improved services to assist homeless veterans.  A January 2008 law provides returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan a total of five years of access to free VA health care.  The following bills are currently pending in Congress and address the needs of vulnerable veterans:

•       H.R. 5554, the Veterans Substance Use Disorders Prevention and Treatment Act of 2008; and •       H.R. 2874, the Veterans’ Health Care Improvement Act of 2007. 

“The tragedy of homeless veterans is that we know what we need to do to prevent it, but neither the military or VA bureaucracy is ready to do this,” said Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  “We also know the repercussions of not doing something.  The military should insist on mandatory screening when troops are discharged and the VA must be prepared to provide comprehensive services to prevent homeless veterans.”

The opening statements of all the witnesses and a link to the webcast are available on the Committee website at http://veterans.house.gov/hearings/hearing.aspx?newsid=220


Panel 1
* John Driscoll, Vice President for Operations and Programs, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
* Libby Perl, Analyst in Housing, Congressional Research Service
* Michelle Saunders, Veteran, Arlington, Virginia

Panel 2
* John F. Downing, President/Chief Executive Officer, Soldier On
* Charles Williams, Colonel USA (Ret.), Executive Director, Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, Inc.
* Phil Landis, Chief Executive Officer, Veterans Village of San Diego
* William G. D’Arcy, Chief Operating Officer, Catholic Charities Housing Development Corporation

Panel 3
* Peter H. Dougherty, Director, Homeless Veterans Programs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

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