George [Basher], thank you for that kind introduction and for chairing this National Coalition’s board of directors. It’s been a productive two years, thanks to your leadership here and also as chair of VA’s Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans. It’s great to see so many partners gathered here once again. Let me just acknowledge:
I’m honored to be here again to discuss with you for a few minutes our shared mission of ending the shame of Veterans’ homelessness.
When I first spoke to you two years ago, we estimated that there were 131,000 homeless Veterans in this country. Today, that estimate is down to 75,600—a decline due primarily to your hard work and determination. And we intend to take that estimate below 60,000 by June 2012. So, thank you, thank you, and keep on chugging. As the prime national advocacy movement devoted solely to helping Veterans, your dedication has resulted in greater partnering, better collaborating, teamwork, and sharing at the federal, state, and local levels to both rescue and prevent homeless Veterans—a two-part mission. We will not end Veterans homelessness unless we are getting A’s, and I do mean A’s, on both parts of this mission: rescue those, who are homeless today, and prevent those at risk from becoming homeless—today.
And while our year-to-year, point-in-time count estimates continue to trend downwards, I am reminded that these are estimates, and they focus primarily on Veterans who are homeless today—the rescue mission. We must find the best approaches for sizing the homeless Veteran population accurately, and it must include both rescue and prevention requirements or we will never be able to anticipate, plan, resource, and execute properly.
I’ve never been able to solve a problem I couldn’t see, and I can’t see the homeless Veteran population with sufficient granularity to visualize our plan unfolding with appropriate resources, moving through its essential preliminary and intermediate phases with both purpose and decisiveness, and arriving at its final objectives in good order—something I used to do for a living.
Our plan today emphasizes rescue and prevention because it must. In time, the plan must transition primarily to prevention and will require us to be much more knowledgeable about the causes of Veterans’ homelessness, about the details of our current homeless and at risk Veteran populations, and about creating action plans that serve Veterans at the individual level.
We will have to become far more expert on our VA tasks, smarter about being willing to learn from and share with all other stakeholders in the homelessness arena: government, non-profit, for profit, federal, state, and most especially, the local level, where the creative geniuses in homelessness reside.
Now look, the President has done everything he can to provide us the resources we say are needed to end Veterans’ homelessness. He has positioned us well to provide the best programs, services, and benefits to achieve our objectives, and his support is reflected in both the large budget numbers and in the details of three good budgets— 2010, 2011, and the budget request for 2012, currently before the Congress.
President Obama’s 2010 VA budget of $114 billion represented a 16 percent increase over the 2009 budget—the largest single-year increase to VA’s budget in over 30 years. His 2011 budget of $125 billion is an $11 billion, 10 percent increase over 2010. His 2012 budget request seeks $132.2 billion dollars to better care for Veterans and to transform VA into a 21st century organization—one capable of increasing Veterans’ access to our services and benefits, of eliminating the backlog in disability claims, and of ending Veterans’ homelessness.
Very few organizations in this country have experienced a 30 percent growth over three years, especially during this period of economic downturn. You should not miss the President’s leadership and unwavering support for Veterans programs, in general, and for ending Veterans homelessness, in particular. He has made promises here, provided the resources, and expects that we will succeed.
Now, within these large budget numbers are the important and practical details that demonstrate his high priority on mental health care and ending homelessness. Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and we rank right up there in joblessness as well. Add PTSD and TBI to this mix, and we define a potent set of challenges that defy easy solutions, try our imagination and our stamina, and test our willingness to subjugate individual approaches in order to team to sort through issues none of us can solve individually. Our goal must remain focused on getting individual Veterans back on the path to stability, independent living, and gainful employment.
Last year, we provided $5.2 billion for mental health programs and launched a workforce surge to bring our staffing to over 21,000. This year, fiscal year 2011, we are spending an additional $542 million for a total mental health budget allocation of $5.7 billion. Our 2012 budget request seeks $6.2 billion for mental health programs.
In addition to these significant investments in mental health, we separately fund Veterans homelessness initiatives. In 2010, we provided $3.7 billion for our homelessness initiatives; in 2011, that investment was increased to $4.3 billion; and in 2012, we have requested $4.9 billion.
Our experience is that homelessness is largely a healthcare issue—81 percent of the cost goes for healthcare needs. Homeless Veteran healthcare costs are 3.5 times the cost for Veterans who are not homeless. The remaining 19 percent—$800 million in 2011—goes to specific rescue and prevention programs designed to reduce Veterans’ homelessness. Approximately $250 million of that $800 million goes to community organizations. The remaining half billion plus dollars funds VA services for homeless Veterans:
The President’s 2012 budget request raises the investment in these programs from $800 to $939 million, a 17.5 percent increase over the 2011 level; his commitment to ending Veterans homelessness is clear and unwavering.
Since 2006, we’ve seen and served nearly 375,000 homeless Veterans. This fiscal year alone, we’ve seen and served over 130,000 homeless Veterans at our medical facilities. I have directed the creation of a living registry that will list every homeless Veteran and Veterans at risk of homelessness with whom we come into contact—with all appropriate precautions for protecting Veteran identity and privacy. As I said earlier, I’ve never been able to solve a problem I couldn’t see, and the homeless Veteran population remains challenging.
Our system willingly responds when a homeless Veteran enters our space to seek help or shelter. We must be more aggressive about this; we must take a proactive stance on delivering needed benefits and services. Our outreach through our community partners needs to be ramped up. I expect to see results from the living registry before the end of this year.
Along with HUD, we will be seeking your input and insights on how to do this well, so, I’d like to thank you in advance for your help. But I am not interested on launching any long-term studies on how to do a registry; I want to move out on building a dynamic data base that is flexible, agile, and transparent—one that assures our resources are going to the right places to help the right people, and that we can both account for our investments and measure the outcomes.
We intend to devise better solutions for housing those who are homeless and preventing those at risk from becoming homeless. We’ll do our part, but we need the insights, support, and participation of all, who have a stake in ending Veterans’ homelessness, in building this registry.
VA has traditionally followed a community presence philosophy: Here we are if you need us. I’m asking our leadership to go from community presence to playing a role of community leadership to help all of us better use our resources to help leaders at the local level—elected, appointed, and volunteer—solve some of our vexing issues like Veterans’ homelessness.
We have pinned the rose on VHA to provide structure, energy, and collaborative leadership in organizing our efforts regarding Veterans’ homelessness. Since January of this year, we have conducted 169 local summits, with the right mix of participation from new and existing federal, state, faith-based, and community partners. These summits are critical platforms for us to engage local leadership in building partnerships that respond to the needs of homeless Veterans and their families.
These are not one-time only sessions but the first of continuing engagements that our local VA leadership will be conducting to collaboratively lay out plans, check progress, and receive continuous feedback from local government and community leaders about what we can do better to end Veterans’ homelessness in their regions.
Good news: We’re reaching Veterans through our new homeless veteran hotline—1-877-4AID-VET. Since March 2010, we have received over 32,000 calls, over 8,000 of which came from homeless Veterans, with another 15,000 identifying themselves as “at risk of homelessness.” A small number of calls came from concerned family members or friends of a Veteran in need. Sixteen-thousand calls were immediately linked to a local medical center for treatment or medical attention. Since our hotline responders are cross-trained to screen all Veterans for suicide risk factors, 126 callers were connected to suicide prevention counselors.
When I spoke to you last June, we had also just established the Center on Homelessness Among Veterans to work with community partners and university affiliates to develop new treatment models addressing both the causes and effects of homelessness and exploring best-practices for specific homeless Veteran populations.
We’ve done some great research through the center. We collaborated with HUD to produce the Veterans Supplemental Report to their Annual Homeless Assessment that came out earlier this year—information that will inform our work and lead to greater results.
For example, we found that 10 percent of Veterans in poverty become homeless at some point during the year, compared to five percent of non-Veteran adults in poverty. We found that female Veterans are more likely to become homeless than males, and that African-American or Hispanic Veterans aged 18-30 who live in poverty are over three times more likely to become homeless than other adults their age.
We’re also learning from our Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration project, or VHPD, another collaboration with HUD and Labor, focused on Servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at risk of homelessness. Since the project started just over two months ago, at five sites around the country, we’ve already seen several hundred Veterans through the program. We’re finding that the demand for these services is high because, once Veterans have exhausted their unemployment compensation, many are struggling to find jobs. So we must find innovative ways, with our partners, to make Servicemembers more aware of VA benefits and services to help them find jobs before they reach crisis.
This research must help us understand the at risk population better. Between DOD and VA, we should understand whether we can identify risk factors even while service is being performed in uniform. Servicemembers experiencing mental health issues or financial difficulties or substance abuse behaviors will not overcome those challenges without assistance and must, therefore, be transitioned to VA with a positive hand-off— no dropped batons that become visible 8-10 years later as a homeless Veteran, when that could have been predicted and prevented. And are we courageous enough to investigate whether we overmedicate Veterans dealing with physical or psychological pain? If substance abuse is one of the common issues of homelessness, are we contributing, in some way, to the problem with our medication philosophy, and is it a question VA and DOD must address together?
The most flexible and responsive housing option remains the HUD-VASH voucher. This year, we received 7,000 more vouchers, which we’ll put to best use in the areas they are needed most. And for the first time, we were able to begin the hiring process for the caseworkers needed to help use those vouchers early, to reduce the time it takes to get Veterans and their families into homes. By the end of summer, we expect there will be a total of 37,000 vouchers in use or available for Veterans and their families.
To serve the estimated 40,000 Veterans who come out of prison each year, a population known to be at risk of homelessness, we have a VA re-entry specialist at 1,006 of our Nation’s 1,300 prisons. Half way through this fiscal year, over 5,000 Veterans have already received re-entry services.
To ensure that eligible Veterans involved with the justice system avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness, we’ve hired 117 VA employees to provide these Veterans with timely access to VA mental health and substance abuse services— And they have already served 6,999 Veterans this year.
As our benefits administration tackles our claims backlog in new and innovative ways, we completed 42 percent more homeless claims in fiscal year 2010 than in the previous year. We’ve seen a 38 percent increase in compensation grants and a 64 percent increase in pension grants. We’re not yet where we want to be, but we’re moving in the right direction.
Many of you provide services under VA’s Grant and Per Diem program. It has been our major source of involvement with community providers over the past 15 years. So far this year, we’re partnering with 550 community groups, including many of yours, to provide over 13,700 transitional housing beds and services to help Veterans.
Our ultimate goal with Grant and Per Diem as we move to eliminate homelessness has always been to return Veterans to independent living and employment. We will strive to give you the tools needed to help Veterans coming out of transitional housing to gain access, with your involvement, into permanent housing.
Going forward, we have to continually look for better ways to work together to tackle the challenges before us. Additionally, this year we helped Alaska and Hawaii develop their own interagency councils on homelessness, which has greatly helped to coordinate our efforts. If every state developed a statewide interagency council on homelessness, our results and ability to coordinate efforts will dramatically improve.
Each step we take to do things better, together, faster, and more efficiently is a step in the right direction. Every day, we need to work smarter and better than we did the day before to get to zero. I am honored to be with you in this fight, and I look forward to our continued work together as we drive to zero.
God bless the men and women who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.