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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH)
National Conference on Ending Homelessness
Washington, DC
July 14, 2010

Nan, thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the National Alliance. Your work on behalf of the homeless is well-known and much-respected. Our thanks to you and your staff for your diligence in supporting all the rest of us, VA included, in our commitments to end homelessness amongst our populations. Your address at our Summit on Veteran Homelessness, last November, resonated with attendees then, and still does today at VA.

I am honored to be here today. From your modest beginnings in 1983, this alliance has grown into a powerful organization of more than 10,000 public and private sector partners. Along the way, you’ve succeeded in housing hundreds of thousands of Americans, a tremendous record of service and achievement. VA is very proud to be one of your partners.

Sometimes, we say that caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a longstanding tradition in this country, that threads of selflessness are woven into our national character. Yet, roughly 643,000 Americans remain homeless on any given night. We also say our Veterans, who come from every town and village in this great land, are a vital part of the national landscape. In fact, VA says that in honoring their service, we keep faith with Abraham Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families. Yet, nearly one-in-six of America’s homeless is a Veteran—107,000 of them.

Nowhere is our obligation to our citizens, and to our Veterans who have defended our Nation, more important, more visible, or more necessary than in our commitment to end homelessness.

You see, at VA, we wrestle with harmonizing two very distinct, yet incongruent, images of those who have served.

The first image is this, and it is one familiar to most Americans. Each year, roughly 60% of all high school graduates go on to a college or university. Of the remaining 40%, some enter vocational training; others immediately enter the workforce. Fewer others, still, join the less than 1% of Americans who volunteer to serve in our Nation’s Armed Forces.

These young men and women enter basic training or boot camp, and a few short weeks later arrive at their first units, where they immediately become valued and trusted members of high-performing teams—tough, motivated, and extremely dedicated. And with superb leadership, they stand ready, each day, to perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous missions. On some days, they are asked to do the impossible—and they do, with unwavering commitment and without complaint.

But, there is a second image; Veterans suffer disproportionately from depression, PTS—Post Traumatic Stress—substance abuse, joblessness, homelessness, and suicides. Why these two disparate images? To be sure, there are far fewer Veterans in the second image than in the first, but the same youngsters populate both images. Why weren’t we able to help those in the second image continue the kinds of successes they achieved in the first image? How did they enter the downward spiral of depression, substance abuse, failed relationships, and joblessness that too often leads to homelessness and, sometimes, to suicide? Let me repeat—the same kids populate both images. So this is not about them; it’s about us.

At VA, our goal is to never allow the youngsters in the first image to fall into the second, and to return those in the second image to lives as productive as possible. If you wonder what the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is working on for the next several years, this is it. Ending homelessness among Veterans is a critical part of transforming VA for the 21st century. You see, to end Veteran homelessness, we have to address all the other reasons that cause the second image. To do that, we must work in collaboration with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, with the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Education, and with other federal, state and local agencies and organizations. We will not be successful without a coordinated, united, collaborative effort.

VA will end Veteran homelessness in five years. Our role, in this regard, is largely strategic and logistical. The hard, tactical fight is being waged in the streets by many of the good folks in this room.

For over 20 years, VA has been involved in street outreach, residential and transitional housing services, vocational rehabilitation, access to primary and mental health care, counseling for substance abuse, and assistance with benefits to those who qualify. While noble, these efforts lacked synchronization or focus on objective outcomes; we were committed to better managing homelessness, not ending it.

We now have the resources and support to end Veteran homelessness in the next five years. President Obama’s 2011 budget requests a homeless funding increase of over 23%, from $3.4 billion in 2010, to $4.2 billion next year. Eighty-five percent of the dollars go to health care, including mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention. Housing and specialized counseling will go from $500 million this year to $799 million in 2011, a 60% increase. Thanks to the President, we have a plan and we have resourced it.

But this isn’t just about money. More is not better; better is better. We have to be smarter about how we employ those resources and put in place the relationships, the procedures, and the disciplines that get 99 cents of impact out of every dollar we spend. Goodness here is not any one organization’s agenda, but what best serves our homeless.

Last year, we held a National Summit on Ending Veteran Homelessness; Nan and a number of you were there. Following that conference, we wrote a detailed five-year plan to end Veteran homelessness, a plan that emphasizes prevention rather than rescue and ensures a “no wrong door” philosophy for Veterans in need of help.

Veterans at risk of homelessness or who have just become homeless must have immediate access to our programs and services, regardless of which facility, which door, they enter seeking assistance. Any door—a medical center, a regional office, a Vet Center, a shelter or a community organization—must be open, welcoming, and capable of helping. Over the next five years, our efforts to end Veteran homelessness will emphasize these six initiatives:

  • Outreach and education to Veterans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.
  • The strategy of prevention—controlling growth, even as we reduce the homeless population.
  • Strengthen the availability of primary, specialty, and mental health care, including substance-use disorders—which is why we are opening five new domiciliary residential programs to assure access to treatment.
  • Increased housing opportunities and appropriate supportive services tailored to the homeless Veteran.
  • Greater financial and employment support as well as improved benefits delivery—everything from increasing the number of Veterans working in the federal government, to improved placement of Veterans in private sector jobs, to growing the number of high-performing Veteran-owned and service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses competing for government contracts. Veterans hire Veterans because they know what they’re getting, so this will create churn in the job market.
  • And finally, expansion of these critically-important community partnerships; VA’s success in this venture is not possible without you. We’re going to be working on the same issues with you for a long time, even after we end homelessness amongst Veterans.

Today, VA partners with a number of community and faith-based, non-profit service providers—including some of the Nation’s largest like Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army—but also many excellent, smaller, local groups in towns and cities all across America. HUD, VA, and the Department of Labor will soon announce a new effort—a HUD-VA At-Risk Pilot—to work with recently discharged and at-risk Veterans and their families. Prevention is the key to ending homelessness. When we begin this initiative, VA will provide comprehensive health care and benefits assistance, and HUD will provide continuums of care, including housing, child care, and other supports to keep Veterans’ families together.

Another initiative we will work, together, is providing supportive service grants for low-income Veterans and families—comprehensive assistance for those at risk of slipping into homelessness; this is a new step for VA in preventing homelessness among Veterans with families. We hope to offer $50 million in funding for this initiative by the end of this calendar year. This program will fund non-profit organizations that target very low-income, Veteran families for services spanning case management, child care, financial counseling, credit restoration, and job training, among others, to those most at risk of becoming homeless. I know that many in this room will join us in keeping families together, employed, and housed.

For these families and for the chronically-homeless Veteran, who is “hard-to-serve”—those who may have refused care in the past, failed to complete previous programs, have a history of disruptive behaviors, or who don’t fit easily into existing programs—the most effective option is HUD-VA Supportive Housing—HUD-VASH. VA will address all Veterans’ needs, no matter how difficult. We will not leave Veterans homeless while they seek treatment, but will house first, and then provide comprehensive treatment and services. In May, HUD announced that another 8,000 HUD-VASH vouchers had been allocated, and we expect another 1,500 vouchers shortly.

Before the end of the summer, we will have enough resources to help roughly 30,000 homeless Veterans and families live in permanent housing. HUD-VASH has dramatically changed our program. And nearly 11% of HUD-VASH units are occupied by women Veterans. In filling the first 20,000 HUD-VASH units, nearly 4,000 children of Veterans will have been kept with their Veteran parents.

We are expanding the participation of homeless and formerly-homeless Veterans in helping to design our programs. CHALENG—Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups—invites homeless Veterans to tell us how VA can better deliver the services they need; it’s about giving voice to our clients. In the past year, over 10,700 homeless or formerly-homeless Veterans participated in CHALENG, a ten-fold increase over three years.

Each year, 40,000 Veterans come out of prisons. Today, 931 of the Nation’s 1,300 prisons have a VA re-entry specialist working with Veterans well before their release. And I cannot emphasize enough the good work of Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York, who originated the concept of Veterans’ Courts, where Veterans can be remanded to treatment rather to prison, giving us a chance to prevent homelessness and even bigger problems later. Again, prevention is the key.

Last month, we announced a new telephone hotline for homeless Veterans—1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838)—to help Veterans find food, shelter, clothing, and assistance. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the same people who staff our suicide prevention hotline, cross-trained responders able to serve both populations. We’ve found that many homeless Veterans who may be considering suicide, won’t call our suicide hotline, but they will call our homeless hotline. Either way, we are there for them. Once again, there is no wrong door to help.

Last year, we partnered with more than 25,000 volunteers who provided outreach and services to more than 42,000 homeless Veterans and more than 6,000 family members at 190 stand down events. We will continue to proactively reach out to the homeless.

VA is a member of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, chaired by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who spoke here yesterday, and directed by Barbara Poppe. We are working closely with HUD, with all members of the Interagency Council, with members of Congress, with many of your organizations, and with thousands of other stakeholders and community organizations.

Our newly-established Center on Homelessness Among Veterans works with community partners and university affiliates to develop new treatment models and best-practices for specific homeless Veteran populations. The center has developed training for VA staff and community partners for working with hard-to-serve Veterans. Some VA medical centers have also developed specialized clinics—low-demand, low-barrier programs delivering health care, mental health evaluations, and social work strategies.

As we navigate our five-year campaign to eliminate homelessness, we expect the path will become steeper; at the end, we will be left with the most difficult cases to address, the hardest to serve. We must accept that and begin preparing now for the steepness of that climb; we didn’t sign on for just the easy cases. We signed on to end homelessness for all Veterans.

Let me end with the words of something called The Soldier’s Creed. In part, the creed makes four, simple, declaratory statements:

  • I will always place the mission first;
  • I will never accept defeat;
  • I will never quit;
  • I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Now, to some, these lines come off as just words, words that roll easily off the tongue. But for those who endeavor to live by them, these are promises made to one another about being able to be counted upon when fear, stress, and danger reign. Think about the demands, the hardship, and the stress incurred by those who choose to live the creed in service to our Nation. We owe every man and woman who has worn our Nation’s military uniforms, a level of courage and determination that matches their own.

Thank you for the invitation to join you today, and once again, for your advocacy, devotion, and outstanding leadership on behalf of homeless Americans. We are all indebted to you.

God bless each and every one of you. God bless the men and women who serve, and have served, in uniform, and may God continue to bless this great, wonderful country of ours. Thank you.