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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Summit on Homeless Veterans
Wardman park Marriot: Washington, DC
November 3, 2009

My name is Shinseki, and I am here to end Veteran homelessness. Many of you have been working the issue of Veteran homelessness for a long time—as members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness or the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans or the Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans.

I’m the newcomer here today, so let me reiterate that this is not a summit on homeless Veterans—it’s a summit to end homelessness among Veterans. That’s our purpose.

President Obama and I are personally committed to ending homelessness among Veterans within the next five years. I learned long ago that there are never any absolutes in life, and a goal of zero homeless Veterans sure sounds like an absolute. 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 have should ever be living on the streets.

During this summit, you will be given an overview of a comprehensive, five-year plan that enlarges and enhances the scope of VA’s efforts to combat homelessness. In the past, VA focused largely on getting homeless Veterans off the streets. This plan is different. It aims as much if not more on preventing as it does on rescuing those who live on the streets.

VA’s plan expands our current programs to safely house Veterans by not only leveraging the full range of VA benefits, including high-quality health care, but also by expanding our collaboration with our public and private partners—past, present, and future:  

  • The Departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development; 
  • The Small Business Administration; 
  • The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness; 
  • State directors of Veterans affairs; 
  • Veteran Service Organizations; 
  • National, state, and local social service providers and community groups. 

The plan expands housing options and mental health care for Veterans. It seeks to overhaul and improve discharge planning for Veterans coming out of incarceration. It will also establish a new national referral center to link Veterans and their families to social service providers in their communities.

Your local initiatives are crucial. That’s where the creative fires are built, stoked, and bellowed. The time is right. We are here to help our local partners in every way we can because they are the first line of contact in dealing with this pervasive issue. Sitting in Washington with a 2,000-mile screwdriver trying to fine tune things at the local level never works. I know this from previous experience. 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.

We conservatively estimate that 131,000 Veterans live on our streets—men and women, young and old, fully functioning and disabled, from every war generation, even the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six years ago, the estimate was that 195,000 Veterans slept on our Nation’s streets, so we are moving in the right direction. But in these tough economic times, if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past six years, the number of homeless Veterans could increase by 10% to 15% over the next five years.

That is not going to happen. You didn’t work for the past six years to see things reversed. Even in tough economic times, this is still the wealthiest, most powerful Nation in the world. No Veteran should be living on the streets without care and without hope. We provide them care, and we are their hope. So let’s keep moving in the right direction to end Veteran homelessness.

As noted before, Veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides. They also rank up there in joblessness. If we want to end Veteran homelessness, we must attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness—we must offer education and jobs, treat depression and fight substance abuse, prevent suicides, and provide safe housing.

First, education: The new Post 9/11 GI Bill provides a powerful option for qualified Veterans to pursue a fully funded degree-completion program at a state college or university of their choice. It also offers an option for private institutions to participate on a funds-matching basis with VA.

While the new GI Bill is a huge education component in the fight against Veteran homelessness, what it lacks is a robust vocational training program. Not every young Veteran wants to spend four years pursuing a college degree, but they might be interested in learning a trade that would get them into the taxpaying workforce sooner.

Next, jobs: VA puts Veterans first in both its hiring and contracting. Thirty percent of VA’s workforce consists of Veterans. Last year, in a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, over 90 percent of employers said they valued Veterans’ skills—in particular, their strong sense of responsibility and teamwork.

We know that Veterans hire Veterans because they know what they’re getting, so VA also puts Veterans first in contracting awards. In FY 2008, $1.65 billion in VA contracts went to service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses. We encourage other agencies to meet and exceed the minimum target of contracting at least 3 percent of their procurement dollars with service-disabled Veterans. And VA is going to raise its numbers this year.

We are also collaborating with the Small Business Administration and the General Services Administration to certify Veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses for listing on the Federal Supply Register, improving their visibility and enhancing competitiveness for federal supply contracts.

These initiatives are intended to enable Veteran-owned small businesses to survive the economic downturn, so they can, in turn, create jobs for other Veterans and help the Nation through this economic recovery.

Health care: VA will spend $3.2 billion this year to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans—$2.7 billion on medical services and $500 million on specific homeless programs. With 85 percent of homeless funding going to health care, the implication is that homelessness is very much a health care issue—heavily burdened by depression and substance abuse.

The psychological wounds of war affect every generation of Veterans. We must aggressively diagnose and treat these unseen wounds to address other portions of the downward spiral that result in severe personal isolation; dysfunctional behaviors; losses of identity, confidence, and personal direction; shattered relationships; depression; and substance abuse.

Last week, VA and DoD co-sponsored a national summit on mental health, attended by over 300 mental health professionals, as well as military and Veteran advocacy groups. Out of that summit will come a consensus report and a plan for better coordinating VA and DoD mental health efforts.

VA now employs over 19,000 mental health professionals to address Veterans’ needs. 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.

Housing: Health care alone will not end homelessness. We need additional housing to take in those who slip through our safety nets. When we talk about housing homeless Veterans, we usually talk in terms of numbers of beds—a bed count. We currently partner with more than 600 community organizations—many of them represented here today—that manage roughly 16,000 transitional housing beds across the country. That includes 1,155 new beds funded last month with more than $17 million in new VA grants. We expect some 20,000 homeless Veterans to pass through this program in FY 2010, and we intend to grow it over the next five years.

Our collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development has also grown in scale and measurable results. In 2008, HUD provided 10,150 HUD-VASH vouchers for homeless Veterans. Thanks to the continuing support of Congress and the personal leadership of Secretary Shaun Donovan, HUD-VASH II, approved in 2009 for 2010 implementation, provides 10,290 more vouchers.

HUD-VASH vouchers are capable of housing single Veterans or Veterans with families. Of the 13,000 Veterans accepted for HUD-VASH housing, 11percent are women, and another 12 percent are Veterans with family members. Safe housing is a critical step to ending homelessness among Veterans, especially among women Veterans and Veterans with children. We look forward to growing this important partnership with HUD.

So, education, jobs, healthcare, and housing—we must take them all on simultaneously. Beyond our crucial collaborations with HUD and DoD, we will soon be launching a new initiative with the Department of Labor. With the insightful leadership of Secretary [Hilda] Solis and Assistant Secretary Ray Jefferson’s energy, this new initiative assists institutionalized Veterans upon discharge.

Of particular interest are Veterans, who are incarcerated or who are being released from long-term psychiatric care. Roughly 40,000 Veterans are released from prison each year. By improving their transitions into independent living; increasing their access to essential health care, including mental health and treatment for substance abuse; and helping them find gainful employment, we will prevent re-institutionalization or a downward spiral into homelessness.

We have to do it all—no missed opportunities in going from 131,000 to zero. VA will need additional full-time staff to execute the plan. We will also need to expand the support we provide our public- and private-sector partners. Our 2010 budget adds $93 million in homeless-specific funding, an increase of nearly 23 percent over 2009. That includes a six-fold increase in funding for contract residential care, so that we don’t have to tell Veterans to come back later if our other facilities are full.

But it can’t just be about resources. More is not better; better is better. We need to do more, we need to do more together, and we need to do things faster, better, and smarter. We will not be able to do these things without a coordinated plan that focuses each of us on discrete pieces of that plan and avoids duplication and waste. 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.

The plan today is a framework. All of you need to help craft details that will guide us in this National effort to end Veteran homelessness within five years. We have momentum, we know where we are headed. Let’s get there on our watch.

God bless our Nation’s Veterans, and God bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.