December 01, 2013

Senate passes bill to help homeless veterans

The Senate passed an ABA-supported bill last month that would expand the definition of homeless veterans to include those fleeing domestic violence and would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop partnerships with public and private entities to provide legal services to homeless veterans and those at risk of homelessness.

S. 287, passed by unanimous consent Nov. 6, would bring the definition of homeless veterans eligible for VA assistance in line with the definition used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The current definition used by the VA defines a homeless veteran as one who meets the criteria of lacking a fixed, regular and adequate place to sleep at night; has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation; lives in a transitional housing setting; resides in a location not meant for human habitation; will imminently lose his or her housing; or has experienced persistent housing instability.

The HUD definition includes additional language that includes “any individual or family who is fleeing, or is attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions in the individual’s or family’s current housing situation, including where the health and safety of children are jeopardized, and who have no other residence and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.”

 “It is unacceptable to deprive veterans of benefits – especially services that are designed to help them when they are at their most vulnerable,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who noted that Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita and alarmingly high rates of domestic violence. The expansion of the definition is expected primarily to assist women veterans, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The legal services provisions in the bill are in response to the VA’s fiscal year 2011 CHALENG report, which revealed that legal assistance ranked among the top four unmet needs identified by homeless veterans for the last four years. The provisions would authorize the VA to enter into public and private partnerships that would fund a portion of the legal services provided to homeless veterans or those at risk of homelessness.

The bill would require the VA to ensure that the partnerships are distributed evenly across the country, including rural and tribal areas.

According to the committee report on S. 287, the committee intends that the VA partner with legal services providers and housing providers that offer legal services in an effort to develop networks of pro bono legal assistance providers and improve the outcomes of the legal services provided.

Other provisions in the bill would increase per diem payments for transitional housing that becomes permanent housing and would authorize per diem payments for care for dependents of homeless veterans.

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