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June 01, 2013

Senate committee weighs proposals to help veterans

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is weighing legislation aimed at helping veterans through efforts to prevent homelessness, coordinate health services and expand access to legal assistance.

During a May 23 committee hearing, witnesses strongly supported the goals of S. 825, a bill sponsored by committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ranking Member Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) to support efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to end veterans’ homelessness by 2015. According to Sanders, the VA’s high level of commitment led to a 17 percent decrease in the homeless veteran population between 2009 and 2012. He pointed out, however, that there were still an estimated 62,000 veterans without a place to call home in January 2012 and that “we must continue to work toward removing any remaining barriers to housing for veterans.”

The bill, he said, contains “common sense program changes” to help the VA sustain the progress that has been made and meet the diverse needs of more homeless veterans. Provisions would:

     •reauthorize VA programs for homeless veterans, including drop-in centers, transitional housing programs, rapid re-housing programs and employment programs;

     •provide for partnerships with public or private entities to fund a portion of the general legal services provided by those entities to homeless veterans and veterans at risk of homelessness;

     •keep veteran families together by allowing VA to house the children of homeless veterans in transitional housing programs;

     •provide incentives to avoid disruptions that arise when veterans complete transitional housing programs and move on to permanent housing;

     •permanently authorize the Labor Department’s Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program; and

     •expand eligibility for the Homeless Veterans Dental Program.

A survey of homeless veterans conducted over the past three years by the Government Accountability Office and the VA Office of the Inspector General identified access to legal services as one of the top unmet needs among homeless veterans (see article below). Another major area of concern found by the survey was the inability of the VA’s transitional housing program to provide ways for homeless women veterans to safely access the VA program’s services. Provisions in S. 825 would require that those receiving grants to provide housing for homeless veterans “meet the physical privacy, safety and security needs of homeless veterans receiving services through the project.”

Witnesses testifying May 23 in support of provisions in S. 825 included Robert L. Jesse, VA principal deputy under secretary for health, and Matt Gornick, policy director, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Other bills related to veterans homelessness considered during the hearing included the following: S. 62, to allow taxpayers to designate a specified portion of any overpayment of tax to be paid to a new trust fund called the Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund; and S. 287, to expand the definition of homeless veteran for purposes of benefits under the laws administered by the VA secretary.

The ABA is working with the VA, other federal agencies and numerous organizations on several fronts to help end veterans’ homelessness by addressing legal barriers to housing, employment, treatment and self-sufficiency.

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