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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Forum on Homelessness Among Veterans
Washington, DC
December 7, 2010

Dr. Petzel, thank you for that kind introduction, and for your leadership. I am proud of what you and your team—Mike Finnegan, Dr. Susan Angell, Pete Dougherty, Lisa Pape, Vince Kane, among so many others, accomplish on behalf of homeless Veterans.

Secretary Hilda Solis, my good friend at Labor, and Assistant Secretary Ray Jefferson—we are all indebted to you both for your leadership on Veterans training and employment issues, and especially our Veterans employment initiatives in government. Thank you for being here this morning.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan will be speaking here tomorrow, as will Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, so let me acknowledge their significant contributions and partnership in the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Secretaries Donovan, Solis, and Sebelius have turned this commitment to end Veteran homelessness into a national initiative.

Jeannie Ritter, the First Lady of Colorado and long-time advocate for the homeless—thank you for your leadership.

Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth and other members of a fabulous VA team that includes my deputy secretary, Scott Gould; my chief of staff, John Gingrich; assistant secretaries Raul Perea-Henze, Todd Grams, and so many others.

Barbara Poppe, Anthony Love, and other members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and John Driscoll, president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Other federal, state, and local partners—especially my counterparts, the state directors of Veterans Affairs.

To the community service and faith-based providers here this morning—you are the real heavy lifters in the war on Veterans homelessness.

Fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to this second National Forum on Veterans Homelessness.

When I arrived at VA about 22 months ago, I began teaching myself to say, “Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides. And they rank right up there in joblessness as well.”

It was a punch in the gut for me, and I repeated that line until it sunk in. I didn’t want to become inured to its impact by letting it become part of the day-to-day background noise.

At one of our earliest conferences on homelessness, I asked whether we thought we could end homelessness amongst Veterans. At the time, we estimated that 131,000 Veterans were homeless. Today that estimate is 107,000—down from a quarter of a million just a decade ago. And so I asked whether you believed that we had the power to end Veteran homelessness in five years, and your response was a resounding, “Yes.”

So, we, at VA, took it on. Since that first meeting, we have provided $3.5 billion to battle Veteran homelessness in 2010, and requested a 2011 budget increase to $4.2 billion to gain momentum in our efforts to end this national shame. As many of you know, about 85% of those dollars go to healthcare, because homelessness is largely a healthcare issue. The remaining 15%--about $500 million in 2010, and more than $600 million in 2011—go to our community partners nationwide—folks like you who are the creative geniuses in the war on homelessness.

With 152 medical centers in our Health Administration and 57 regional offices in our Benefits Administration, VA is structured, poised, and capable of helping us all deal with Veteran homelessness decisively—both to prevent it, and to rescue those who have been forced into the streets or who end up incarcerated. Forty thousand Veterans leave our prisons each year. I believe that the costs of prevention are, over time, far less than the costs of caring for those who have slipped into the ranks of the chronically homeless.

Thanks to President Obama and the Congress, we have resource to attack these long-standing requirements. We owe a return on their investment, and we intend to deliver. But ending Veteran homelessness isn’t just about resources. As I’ve said before, 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 are in a tough fight. I know it, you know it. Resources alone won’t end Veteran homelessness—people will. Determined, dedicated risk-takers who know the causes; who know what may work and what definitely won’t; and, who know how to deliver a mission that’s complex, complicated, rife with bureaucracy, and historically long on promises and short on delivery. People will deliver.  People like you.

We need a coordinated plan that focuses each of us on our discrete piece of that plan, and avoids duplication, waste, and frivolous spending. If we are going to end Veteran homelessness in five—no, now four years—we must be efficient, effective, creative, determined, practical, and best of friends. We must trust one another and integrate our efforts so that there’s no competition and no wasted motion. That’s what I’m talking about.

We need commitment and leadership from all around this room. We must attack the root causes of homelessness by offering education and jobs; treating depression; fighting substance abuse; and, providing safe housing. And we must do all of this in a struggling economy as the population of young Veterans coming home from war grows daily.

None of us can do this on our own. We need each other.
There will be slips on the part of some we are trying to help. That’s to be expected. It’s the nature of the problem. Let’s not let perfection be the enemy of the good. Let’s keep our eye on the objective and accept that the psychological wounds of war are pervasive and affect every generation of Veterans.

We must aggressively diagnose and treat these unseen wounds in order to avoid other aspects of the downward spiral—severe personal isolation; dysfunctional behaviors; losses of identity, confidence, and personal direction; shattered relationships; failed marriages; depression; and, substance abuse—all of which sometimes lead to thoughts of suicide. This is where VA and our 20,000 mental health providers bring decisive weight to our efforts.

Someone once observed that, “You can have change without progress, but you cannot have progress without change.” The same philosopher also said that people “would not have attained the possible unless, time and again, [they] had reached out for the impossible.”

For VA, 2010 has been about change, about progress, and about achieving what some thought was impossible—especially in ending Veteran homelessness.

  • This year, we have over 132,000 Veterans on our rolls for homeless services.
  • Our National Homeless Call Center has received nearly 13,000 calls since its launch in March.
  • Together, VA and HUD provide permanent housing to more than 18,000 Veterans and families.
  • Almost 24,000 homeless Veterans are supported through VA’s Grant and Per Diem program.
  • Almost 3,000 have been admitted to our domiciliaries, and close to 29,000 disability claims have been processed for homeless Veterans.
  • Our Center on Homelessness Among Veterans is working closely with many of you to develop new treatment models and training courses for VA staff and community partners in handling unique, hard-to-serve Veterans. You see, as we succeed in winnowing down the homeless Veteran population, at the end, we will be left with the toughest, most difficult cases—those who have had mental health and behavior issues; those who have fallen out of programs in the past; and, those with substance abuse problems.

Well-intended people who lack synergy can fall short of their goals. It’s happened before. I encourage, and I’m committed to establishing an overarching national strategy that accommodates a nesting of each of our coordinated plans into ours, so that at each tier of collaboration, we support the achievement of your ultimate goals at the local level. I cannot do it from Washington. As I’ve said before, the 2,000-mile screwdriver that attempts to fine-tune things at the local level has never worked. It won’t work now. I know this from previous experience.

What I’m suggesting is the development of synchronous plans at the federal, state, and local levels—public-private partnerships so that we all have visibility of who is doing what; when; and how it is being achieved. The plans themselves are not ends. They are the “ways” in an “ends—ways—means” discussion. Plans are the guides for synchronizing our actions so that we build and sustain decisive momentum together.

In a former life, I used to say, “luck plays a role in every operation, but luck favors those who plan best.” In other words, nothing is ever exactly the way you assumed it to be, and human interaction drives actions and reactions in unpredictable ways. Those who fare best in these situations are those who have prepared broad, flexible plans and built cohesive, agile organizations—organizations that can adjust rapidly to changes in situation, conditions, and even players. Such is our challenge in dealing with the homeless.

Broad, flexible plans and cohesive, agile partnerships—that is what is demanded. If we are to succeed in this war on homelessness, we must be more cohesive and better synchronized than we have ever been. We must cross-talk—full and open communication among the participants of this forum. We must continually engage one another substantively, proactively, ensuring over-coordination because that’s what it takes to achieve shared situational awareness.

To this end, I have chosen Dr. Randy Petzel, our Under Secretary of Health, to serve as lead integrator in developing VA’s synchronous plans throughout the breadth and depth of our organizations. Where homelessness is concerned, he will be the conduit to the rest of VA, if you don’t already have those contacts established. He has the rose pinned on him for VA.

Through his chain of supervision—from the department, through the VISN level, and down to medical centers and healthcare system—VHA will provide the lubricating mechanism to facilitate our successes. They are authorized to be our single points of contact to harmonize VBA and NCA players in this coordinated assault on Veteran homelessness. That means our Vet Center counselors, regional office claims adjudicators, and VISN and medical center directors must be in constant dialogue with one another. They all contribute to the mission and must invite our community partners—those heavy-lifting, creative geniuses I talked about—to join in our dialogue, whether it’s healthcare, benefits, compensation, mortgages, Post 9/11 GI Bill, HUD-VASH, or Grant and Per Diem.

I’ve never been able to solve a problem I couldn’t see. So a first step in developing synchronous plans must be to create a registry of homeless Veterans and families. To create a meaningful homeless registry, we need input from all sources of accurate information. Again, VA’s Under Secretary of Health, VISN directors, hospital directors, directors of regional offices all bear the responsibility to ensure the integrity of our registry, the execution of our plan, and the end of homelessness among Veterans.

I am directing that each VHA entity director hold an organizational meeting before the end of February to begin cross-talking and developing your local plans. All of our representatives must be at these meetings and participate. I will be looking for results of your planning in April when VA conducts its mid-year budget execution review. And if Veteran homeless priorities are not being executed in one region, those funds will be reallocated to those locations where the need an activity are greater. 

A simple philosophy at work here. In dealing with tough problems, you either do or you don’t. In VA, we do. The President and the Congress have provided us incredible funding to do what we say is right for the American Veteran. We owe them all—including that Veteran—a return on investment. We’re burning daylight—let’s get on with it.

Sixty-nine year ago today, the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America headlong into the largest conflict of the 20th century. In the years since, there have been other days when the lives of succeeding generations of Americans were changed by the demands of national security. For the latest generation, its day came on 11 September 2001—a call to action.

And in all those cases, after the initiating event, things did not get easier. They got significantly harder. Yet, in every generation, stood those who went forward to meet their challenges for us and for the world. Their unblinking determination, sweat, blood, sacrifice, and patriotism made all the difference in the years that followed.

Today, I can think of no better way to honor the service and sacrifices of these generations of Veterans than to put a level of effort, energy, commitment, and dedication into ending Veteran homelessness that matches the service they provided to the Nation in war.

In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, 60 years ago, William Faulkner made a vow. “I decline,” he said in Oslo in 1950, “to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

The spirit Faulkner described is what brings us together this morning—the same noble spirit that infuses hearts and fuels the labors of all in our efforts to seek out, to comfort, and to help lift up our Nation’s homeless Veterans. It will take all of use to succeed in our mission to safely rescue every homeless Veteran from the streets of our Nation and prevent any others from joining them. 

On behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs and President Obama, thank you for your devotion, advocacy, and outstanding leadership on behalf of Veterans.
God bless each of you. God bless our troops in the field, and may God continue to bless this great country of ours. Thank you.