HomeUSAPrograms to Help Homeless Veterans Are Not Reaching Them, Congressional Reps Told

Programs to Help Homeless Veterans Are Not Reaching Them, Congressional Reps Told

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A bipartisan congressional subcommittee met in Oceanside on Thursday to hear from service providers and other stakeholders who shared information and anecdotes about how they are working, not always successfully, to reduce homelessness among veterans.

Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, said the hearing at MiraCosta College could help persuade Congress to pass bills that will expand services and reduce barriers that sometimes prevent veterans from receiving help with housing or other issues that can contribute to homelessness.

As an example, Levin said he is working on a bill that would redefine eligibility for affordable housing by no longer counting disability payments as income.

Under the current method, veterans who receive disability payments, even for injuries sustained in the service, may earn too much to be eligible for housing, denying them the very housing meant for them, he said.

In another example, Levin said past hearings helped inform Congress that some benefits were being denied to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, which led to a change so more people could receive benefits.

Thursday’s field hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity also included Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California and Republican representatives Young Kim of California and Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, chair of the subcommittee.

“We’ve got to find ways to fund these essential programs without putting a huge financial burden on the backs of taxpayers now or in the future,” said Van Orden, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL.

Witnesses appearing before the subcommittee included Frank Pearson, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, San Diego County Public Housing Authority’s Housing and Community Development Director David Estrella and Oceanside Public Housing Authority’s Neighborhood Services Director Leilani Hines.

Just south of Camp Pendleton, Oceanside has a large military presence and veteran population, as does all of San Diego County, which also is home to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Naval bases in Coronado, Point Loma and San Diego.

In all, the county has more than 100,000 active-duty service members and 240,000 veterans, one of the largest concentrations of military personnel in the nation.

Pearson said VA San Diego has struggled to meet national goals for permanent housing placement. The agency placed 704 veterans in permanent housing in 2022, short of its goal of 842. Several initiatives are being implemented this year to increase the number, he said.

Hines said the lack of affordable housing and a competitive rental market are big contributing factors to the use of VA Supportive Housing vouchers. In the past few years, only 50 percent of VASH vouchers have been used in Oceanside, which she called a missed opportunity.

Estrella had a similar experience at the county. While the county, the San Diego Housing Commission and the Oceanside Housing Authority were allocated 2,334 vouchers, only 1,670 veteran families are in units that receive VASH assistance.

The vouchers are issued through referrals from the VA, and Estrella said additional outreach is needed to get them to more veterans. He also said the county received only 11 referrals a month last year, a number so low it is not eligible to receive additional vouchers.

He also said the restriction on the number of project-based VASH vouchers, or vouchers that are attached to housing units, should be increased. The number now is limited to 10 per development or 10 percent of all units, whichever is greater.

Takano said he had heard that San Diego had done well in allocating emergency housing vouchers that were used during the pandemic to help families pay rent, and he was working on legislation that would expand the VASH program by mimicking the workings of the emergency housing vouchers, which included quicker referrals, extra money for landlord incentives and other benefits.

A second panel of witnesses featured homeless service providers and included Interfaith Community Services CEO Greg Anglea, People Assisting the Homeless San Diego Regional Director Hanan Scrapper, Adjoin Veterans Director Dustin Potash and Community HousingWorks CEO and President Sean Spear.

Anglea told the subcommittee that his organization had been using the VA’s Per Diem Transitional Housing Program to provide 64 community-based beds for veterans in Oceanside. The program is scheduled to sunset next week, reducing funding from $152 a day to $64 a day.

“That amount is not enough to purchase a hotel room in a community like this, let alone provide housing and care,” he said.

Spear told the subcommittee that Congress can take several steps to help veterans facing homelessness and increase affordable housing for them.

Among the suggestions, Spear said veterans should be able to move into new units faster, disability benefits should not make someone ineligible for a VASH voucher, more project-based vouchers should be created, and more housing should be available on VA-controlled land.

National efforts to decrease homelessness among veterans have been considered successful in recent years. In November, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness announced a count from earlier that had shown an 11% decline in the population since 2020, the last time the count was conducted.

It was the biggest drop in veteran homelessness in more than five years, while data since 2010 shows a 55.3% overall reduction in the population.

With that drop, however, the annual count still found about 33,000 veterans experiencing homelessness throughout the United States, with 700 in San Diego County.

This story originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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