By Joe Ingram
It was a bold statement: "My name is Shinseki, and I am here to end veteran homelessness."
Yeah, right. I did not expect much change on the streets here in Seattle or King County when I heard Edwin K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, utter those words at a national conference on homelessness.
Someone described the VA to me like a 50-foot hose. You grab one end and give it a whip and way down at the other end there is barely a movement.
But Shinseki has brought change.
The VA has quadrupled its investment in nearly 500 programs across the country through its Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program. This program provides transitional housing and supportive services to homeless veterans for up to 24 months. The great majority of these clients advance to independent living during that eligibility period.
The Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program has more than tripled in capacity to serve homeless veterans, and has become one of the most successful employment assistance programs in the Department of Labor portfolio.
Health Care for Homeless Veterans coordinators, female veteran coordinators and OEF/OIF specialists have been placed at virtually every VA medical center and every VA regional benefits office.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and VA now have 20,000 HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers to issue to veterans with serious mental and physical disabilities, with another 10,000 expected to become available next year.
Today the person who leads the homeless veterans program at the VA has 34 employees under her, when for a number of years she had three. These employees are not sitting in the VA waiting for people to come to them, they are on the streets looking for homeless veterans and going into homeless camps and asking if they can help.
There is more veteran-specific housing being built than ever before, and the barriers to transitional housing are lower. Before a veteran had to have 60 days clean and sober before they could move in now the time is much lower and the VA is willing to work more closely with the veteran to overcome his or her barriers.
The VA is forming new partnerships. They are working with the Department of Labor to put back to work the veterans who can and want to work, and they are working with local agencies to address local concerns and local solutions.
Another sign the VA has changed is that it's going local. More and more, the VA is working with Washington State's Department of Veterans Affairs to connect veterans with needed services. Contracting for VA health clinics in rural areas means more veterans are getting better health care and getting connected to the larger system without the hours wasted at the VA hospital.
There are still some issues to be addressed. These services are mainly aimed at the new veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The older vets like me, from the Vietnam era, are getting the benefit of these services even though we still remember well the shabby treatment we got when we came home. We still remember the mindset of the VA saying, "We are the VA and you're not so you listen to us and we won't listen to you."
There are still some old-time mindsets in the VA. When veterans come into contact with them we do what we have always done -- run. One of the biggest hurdles that the VA has to overcome in today's society is its past reputation and it looks like it is doing that. I have been to more training sessions that the VA has partnered with and in all of those, they are also listening to our needs and to the needs of veterans just coming home.
It isn't perfect yet, but the VA is doing more than it has ever done before for homeless veterans and I have to give credit to the agency that it is starting to show it cares.
Ending veteran homelessness in five years? Not sure that it can be done, but I do know that the VA will end homelessness for a lot of veterans in the next five years.