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Viewpoints on Veterans Affairs and related issues : hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, second session, May 4, 1994 online

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Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness Among Veterans

Testimony before the
House Committee on Veterans' Affairs
Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee

4 May 1994

On behalf of the
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

Presented by
Richard Fitzpatrick

Executive Director

I come before you this morning with a heavy heart. At times I may be faulted for being overly optimistic
about the prospect of breaking the cycle of homelessness among veterans. But today, I'm frustrated, depressed,
angry and doing my best to fight back the temptation of being cynical.

Today, it is my sad dury to report to you that things aren't getting better for homeless veterans - they're
getting worse. And It Is with deep regret that we are forced to conclude that our natural ally in the battle against
homelessness, the Department of Veterans Affairs, has dropped the ball again. ..and again. ..and again.

The euphoria and the grand rhetoric of the February Homeless Veteran Summit has died away - but so
have hopes of homeless veterans and those who endeavor to give them a helping hand. We supported the
Summit. More than 700 concerned Americans came to Washington, D.C. (mostly at their own expense) and
gave Secretary Jesse Brown a standing ovation for his call for a plan to end homelessness for the quarter of a
million men and women who served their country In the armed forces.

We believed the message that it was a 'new day' where the VA would enter into a partnership with the
nearly two hundred communiry based programs who are already working to break the cycle of homelessness
for veterans. We believed that the VA would listen and learn from our experience and would work In
collaboration with us. We believed that these words would be translated into action by the vast and rich VA
system. "No government program can solve this problem alone" said Secretary Brown. We couldn't agree

One of stated goals of the Summit was "to set the stage for dramatic new progress to end homelessness
among veterans...." That was then; this is now.

The conference is over. Everyone has gone home. It is now May. There is no "dramatic progress."
There Is no progress. Things are actually getting worse

During the Summit, the Secretary reported on implementation of the Congresslonally mandated
"Homeless Veterans Grant/Per Diem Program." He said the draft regulations would be published in the Federal
Register during March with the expectation of making grants In September. But the VA didn't submit their
regulations in March. ..or in April. ..and now we're told it won't happen in May. This means, for all practical
purposes, that there won't be a program this fiscal year. Which means that when this lovely summer has gone


and the cold returns, thousands of homeless veterans will suffer needlessly due to the inability of the VA
bureaucracy to come up with a plan to disperse $5 million dollars.

We believe the program should be funded at least ten-fold over this year's budget. But how do we
make the case to the Appropriations committee that we need more money, when the VA can't spend the money
Congress has ready given them? Mr. Chairman, you and your colleagues performed a noble service by passing
the enabling legislation. I'm sure you can feel the frustration as our enthusiasm and hopes fade away.

Last December media attention to the tragic death of Yetta Adams (a homeless woman who died on a
bench in front of H.U.D.) reminded us that the issue becomes more dangerous in the winter months. Since Ms.
Adams' death at least a half-dozen homeless veterans in the District of Columbia lost their lives to the cold.

These individuals received none of the fanfare of Yetta Adams, perhaps because they chose less illustrious
locations for their demises. Perhaps, however, the deaths of these homeless veterans are symptomatic of a
larger societal denial of the existence of homeless veterans. Are we, as a nation, too ashamed to admit that
those who fought to preserve our republic are now warmed only by the steam rising from city grates; steam that
is emitted from the buildings where those who work and live can do so safely because of the sacrifices of our
veterans? These veterans received better nutrition in trenches and jungles where all food had to be airlifted in
than they do today, standing in line for the next meal at a local shelter, soup kitchen, or meal truck.

With Public Law 102-590, we saw a ray of hope. With the VA's bungling of its implementation, we see
the needless waste of more veterans' lives.

One of the reasons the Summit was so well received was that it seemed to be the first visible sign of the
VA's willingness to collaborate with community providers and organizations. And this seems to us to be just
what the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs had in mind when you passed section 107 of
Public Law 102-405 requiring the VA to (1) identify public and private homeless programs;
(2) determine homeless veterans' needs and (3) develop local coordination plans with local providers.

Once again we regret to report that the VA has made no visible progress on this effort. During the final
hour of the Summit', Secretary Brown and his special assistant for homeless issues. Dale Renaud, made calls for
the continuation of the work and enthusiasm of the summit. They specifically talked about a series of local, VA
Medical Center based "summits" which would do much to meet the requirements of PL 102-405. Our
organization went so far as to propose an intensive, hands-on project to help the VA implement these needed
local linkages. They have ignored our suggestions.

Again during the final euphoria of the Summit, Sec. Brown pledged to convene a national advisory
board made up of a cross-section of those who attended the Summit to keep the spirit of cooperation from the
Summit alive. Nearly two and a half months later, no such advisory group has been assembled and the
momentum has been lost.

Literally dozens of specific suggestions came out of the Summit's work groups - suggestions that could
make real, tangible improvements in the lives of homeless veterans. We do not know of one that has been

It IS with deep regret and much anguish, that we feel obligated to call for a legislative investigation of

the VA's homeless efforts. The current leadership of these efforts are decent, honorable, and well-meaning
individuals who have failed to make any tangible headway in marshaling the VA's efforts to fight to end
homelessness among veterans. A passive style does not serve the Secretary - or this cause well. We applaud
the Secretary for having created the position of "Homeless Czar" (a suggestion our group has been promoting
for two years) but feel it requires a take<harge kind of individual. We need someone who can stand up and
rock the boat of the VA bureaucracy until the needs of homeless veterans are paid attention to.


This issue is as serious as life and death. It is critical that Congresses Homeless Initiative be
implemented this fiscal year; that each VA Medical Center holds a "mini summit" with local service providers;
and that a national advisory committee be convened to work with the VA (and other federal agencies) on
implementing needed reforms to help homeless veterans help themselves. And we feel the commanding officer
of the VA's homeless initiatives must be the best, most effective, most persuasive, most articulate, most
committed, most experienced advocate available. Further, we stand ready and able to assist in any each of
these efforts.

With all of this attention to the efforts (or lack of same) at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we do not
want to suggest that the VA is the only agency that should be helping to meet the needs of homeless veterans.

For example, unquestionably the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs needs to be brought into the
process to resolve this crises. The current leadership at HUD should be applauded for its grasp of the homeless
problem in general and its innovative steps to deal with it. Their budget proposal for next year is realistic and
will have a positive impact on the problem. The ability of Assistant Secretary Andrew Cuomo to get a $25
million homeless initiative approved, in the Federal Register, review proposals and commit money all within a
few months of Yetta Adams' death should serve the VA as a shining example that things can get done
expediently and without getting mired in bureaucracy!

We only wish HUD had little more recognition of the need for veteran specific programs . For example,
earlier this year funds were awarded for "Innovative Homeless Programs" with less than 2% going specifically to
serve the 30% to 35% of the homeless who are veterans. And this is not due to a lack of effort on the part of
local veteran programs; a substantial number of community-based veteran programs made proposals. It may
now be necessary to require that an appropriate percentage of HUD homeless funding be set-aside for programs
that specifically serve veterans and their families.

While we are faced with frustrations and disappointments on a number of fronts, I want to take a
moment to point out one small but shining star - one federal program that is working: the Department of
Labor's Homeless Veteran Reintegration Project (HVRP). With a tiny budget ($5 million for 27 programs spread
across the country) and a minuscule staff, this program can document that it has helped tens of thousands of
formerly homeless veterans break they cycle of homelessness and become productive, tax-paying citizens. We
applaud Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans Employment and Training Preston Taylor and his dedicated
staff, and urge the funding of this program to its full authorized level.

We are submitting with this testimony more than 20 specific steps that the federal government
can take to help. We ask for your review and support of these initiatives.

First, let me take a moment to reiterate the basics; while one in ten Americans are veterans, one in
every three of the homeless are veterans. Every night, 250,000 homeless veterans are without what you and I
call a home. Because people move into and out of homelessness, half a million veterans are homeless on an
annual basis. These men and women have served us in peacetime and in war, sacrificing their youth, and in
many cases their limbs, to protect our country. And now, when they are weak and weary, they are ignored by
the very institutions they fought to protect.

How ironic it is that on the grounds of Lafayette Park, in the front of the White House, as many as sixty
homeless men and women set up camp each night. And a majority of them honorably served their nation in
the U.S. military. How do they feel about the leader of the free world sleeping only a few hundred yards away?
It certainly doesn't provide the same warmth as an extra blanket. And how bitter the reality that our President,
within shouting distance of this group of Lafayette Park homeless veterans, can commit the armed forces - and
billions of dollars of taxpayer resources - to another war at a moment's notice - yet he seems to lack the ability
to make a frontal assault on the issue of homelessness among those who heroically fought the Cold and not-so-
cold Wars.


Would a homeless veteran choose to risk his or her life again without a guarantee that their government
would be there for them afterward? The startling answer is: yes! For these men and women love their country.
Unfortunately, right now, it seems like an unrequited love.

The fastest growing group of homeless veterans is from the post-VietNam era; and, specifically, the
veterans of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Too many of those who marched down the streets of our cities in
"Welcome Home" parades are now sleeping on those streets.

I don't have to point out to the men and women in this room that there are homeless veterans in our
nation's Capital. I doubt that there is a person here who hasn't already seen a homeless veteran this morning.
Even the President cannot )og through our city streets without encountering single, homeless adults. The
President has said that the individuals he sees and talks to during his morning runs are "100% veterans". And
yet, there is no consistent ownership of this Issue.

Many homeless veterans, particularly those who served in VIetNam, have been ignored by "the system";
some have even been treated with hostility. We seldom treat veterans with the dignity and respect that they
deserve. The result? They further isolate themselves, further complicating their existing medical and mental
health problems. The downward spiral continues, until the once-employable, skilled and sociable individual
becomes far removed from society and, sometimes, from what we call reality.

While this Administration has done far more than any in the past to admit our responsibility to
veterans, we have not systematically reached out to identify them, nor have we tried to understand or serve
their unique needs. Homeless veterans do not count in this country, because we don't count them. No one
segment of federal or state or city government keep^ track of homeless veterans. The VA medical facilities do
not keep track of the number of clients who are homeless, and frequently discharge a veteran who clearly has
no place to live. Additionally, traditional homeless shelters rarely keep track of whether or not a client is a
veteran. The result is that we have a serious gap in the system and now know very little about an Important and
growing problem.

Years ago, our country constructed Old Soldier's Homes for retired veterans. Today, there is no federal
initiative to house or serve those who served our country. The first step is to identify those in need of the help,
so that their needs can begin to be addressed. Then, we must begin to define the appropriate mechanism for
the delivery of those services.

Many veterans have needs particular to their circumstances. Other homeless people who are not
veterans do not have the same needs. As long as the veterans are not identified, their special needs will not be
addressed. Further, the specific physical and psychological challenges facing the combat veteran are well-
beyond the service capability of the shelter or soup kitchen.

These symptoms are correlated with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mania, symptoms which
have often been treated by the mental health community without recognition of their relationship to PTSD,
resulting in the veteran with PTSD not receiving the appropriate type of treatment. In addition to the special
mental health needs of the homeless veteran, a veteran typically suffers from higher rates of unemployment than
the rest of the adult male population (up to 2 percentage points higher unemployment rate). These special
needs are not and will not be addressed by a homeless care system geared toward the non-veteran homeless.
So, what does work? What is there that is successful in resolving these problems and getting veterans (and their
families) back into mainstream society?

There are local programs in 38 states and the District of Columbia. These community-based homeless
veteran service providers are as varied as the areas of the country and Individuals that they serve; they Include
barracks-style and transitional housing; residences specifically for vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress


Disorder; food distribution programs for needy veterans and their families; and veteran service counseling
centers and day-time drop-in vet centers. The programs are run by non-profit and for-profit organizations-
housing coalitions; Veteran Service Organizations; and local, state, and federal agencies. A number of
community-based organizations are contracted by or in collaboration with the VA.

There are a number of common traits that exist among these Community Based Programs (CBOs) Most
are veteran-helping-fellow-veteran programs. There is a commitment to help those who are willing to help
themselves within a structure that promotes discipline and self-reliance, characteristics of the military lives the
veterans once led. These programs are not traditional shelters. Thev provide a hand up, not a hand out The
veterans must be willing to work and often, to adhere to a strict set of rules or boot camp-style of discipline and
service. Finally, many programs also have a component of community service.

Perhaps the most important feature of many of these programs is the follow-up that they provide The
veteran is assisted through each phase of recovery. A thorough evaluation of the individual is done and the root
causes of his or her homelessness are assessed. What follows is a comprehensive continuum of care beyond
merely assisting him or her with housing and other basic needs. The veteran is connected with a case manager
who will continue to monitor progress; he/she is provided with job training and counseling, with self-
sufficiency as the ultimate goal; and is made aware of the benefits to which he/she is entitled as a veteran
Thus, the program stays with the veteran as he or she takes all the steps toward full re-integration into society.

This kind of continuing care is what truly breaks the cycle of homelessness and prevents the revolving
door scenario, which drains the resources of the VA and all levels government. Furthermore, not only do our
programs lessen the burden placed on general homeless service providers and VA-run programs but the
programs themselves are cost-effective. Most are able to provide services at a fraction of the cost of those run
by the VA. Community-based organizations are unhampered by the vast bureaucracy of a large government
mstitution. Given what they are accomplishing on a shoe-string budget, one can only imagine the success they
would have given an Increase in funding.

One such community-based organization is Swords to Plowshares which has been serving veterans in
San Francisco since 1974. Although homelessness was not the main problem when Swords opened its doors
8^ /o of the current clientele is homeless. Swords to Plowshares offers a full continuum of care to veterans
including: one-on-one counseling; intervention and referral for PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse relapse
prevention, coping and life management skills; benefits advocacy; ,ob preparation and placement; legal services
relating to military discharge and VA benefits problems; and transitional housing in the only veteran-specific
community-based program in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over 1,000 veterans receive services each year.

An example of a younger program for homeless veterans is the Gulf Coast Veterans Foundation a non-
pro it community-based organization established in 1992 in Pensacola, Florida. Services provided include-
shelter; food; clothing; substance abuse and mental health care; counseling; assistance obtaining housing
employment; and govemment benefits; education; and training. The first shelter for single male veterans was
opened by Gulf Coast in January 1993 and is on donated property. Gulf Coast has secured two properties
through the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) which will house single male veterans. It is also the recipient of
two homes under the Department of Veterans Affairs Homeless Provider Lease Pilot Program- these homes are
used to provide housing for veterans with families. Gulf Coast has an all-volunteer staff and has not been able
to meet the demand of referrals from other agencies due to lack of beds. The demand for services reflects the
fact that veterans are drawn to areas where military facilities are located and reciprocally, the downsizing of the
military' is contributing to the number of homeless veterans. Numerous military facilities of all branches of the
U.S. Armed Forces are located along the Gulf Coast.

The successful model of the one-stop shop, providing a comprehensive range of services for homeless
veterans is also working on a smaller, temporary scale in the form of StandDowns. This growing grassroots
volunteer effort originated in southern California in 1988 when the concept of StandDown was adapted for


homeless veterans. StandDown is the military terminology for a brief period of time in which a soldier leaves
an active combat area in order to rest and regain strength. It was adopted by Robert Van Keuren and Dr. Jon
Nachison, VietNam veterans from San Diego who launched the first StandDown event there in 1988.

StandDowns give homeless veterans a weekend of safety and security where they can sleep in barracks-
style tents, receive nutritious meals, health care, clothing, and an in-depth needs assessment. Job and substance
abuse counseling, legal assistance and a wide range of other supportive services are available on site. It is a
quick, effective and dramatic way to gain access to the continuum of care.

Since then, StandDown events have been staged by more-and-more community-based groups around
the country each year. They are put on with support from veterans' organizations, local VA centers. National
Guard and Reserve units, corporate sponsors, and hundreds of volunteers in cities from Anchorage and Dallas
to Cincinnati and Boston. For 1 994, at least 50 StandDown are planned. StandDowns provide an opportunity
for the vets to enjoy a time of relative safety, to access needed services and to plan for a transition from
homelessness. While not a cure for homelessness, StandDowns offer a stepping stone to more permanent
efforts to deal with the problem.

StandDown Home in Houston, Texas serves as an example of a permanent effort that resulted from the
increase in community awareness of the homeless veteran problem that typically follows a StandDown. After a
StandDown was held in Houston, volunteers got together and established a home, currently housing 12
veterans. Lost Sheep Ministries, the non-profit organization that sponsored the home, acquired a repossessed
VA property and the veterans themselves did the renovations. After a local TV. station broadcast a report on the
home, people from the community formed a line down the street to donate furniture. The organization has
now acquired a second house and is looking for a small apartment complex or a motel to help them meet the
needs of the substantial number of homeless veterans in the Houston area. Whether or not they can do this
without any government grants is questionable.

As the community support for StandDown Home demonstrates, homeless veteran programs tend to
weather the current tide of NIMBYism. The voluntary service component of many programs also facilitates
better relations with the community. Veterans living at the Tour of Duty Home in Pittsburgh, a non-profit
organization that primarily serves minority vets, give back to the community by participating in a Mentor
Program; they visit local public schools and reach out to fatherless boys. The program also teaches Ancient
African History to minority veterans, strengthening their cultural and self awareness.

In Richmond, VA, the veterans living at VietNam Veterans Base Camp, three homes started by a
formerly homeless veteran, go out into the streets every night to feed vets still living on the streets.

A group that focuses on feeding veterans is the Veteran Family Service Corporation in Baldwin Park,
California, which distributes food to 1600 veterans and their families a month. The program distributes over
5,000 pounds of food a month and is entirely funded by local donations . Although their hope is to open a
transitional house in the community and to establish such food distribution programs across the country, efforts
to receive any kind of government funding have been unsuccessful.

All of these programs are open to any veteran, which raises another important issue concerning
homeless veterans. Unlike the VA, many community-based programs are open to any veteran, including those
with less than honorable discharges. The issue of being able to serve all veterans, including those with 'bad
paper', is a particularly difficult one when dealing with many VietNam era veterans.

Our contact with homeless veteran service providers also shatters the myth that homelessness is an
urban problem. In Las Vegas, Nevada, the staff of The Key Foundation, a non-profit organization, go out into
the desert on a weekly basis to find and feed homeless vets. A StandDown there last year drew 2,000 people.
In Southern Oregon, local search and rescue units were used in spreading the word about the local StandDown,


by going into the forests and other isolated areas where homeless vets are known to live- 450 homeless vets

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Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on VeterViewpoints on Veterans Affairs and related issues : hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, second session, May 4, 1994 → online text (page 16 of 23)