June 24, 2019

Help End Veterans Homelessness

On May 22nd, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a legislative hearing that included a bill aimed at curbing homelessness among veterans. The Homeless Veterans Prevention Act, S. 980, was sponsored by Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Jon Tester (D-MT) and supported by all witnesses, including Veteran Service Organizations, the VA, and many advocates, including the ABA, who sent letters of support. The broad support for this bill was not surprising--versions of the bill have passed the Senate twice before. Unfortunately, leaders in the House Veterans Affairs Committee have opposed the bill during the last three Congresses for unknown reasons. There is some historical context worth considering though.

Since making a commitment in 2010 to end veteran homelessness, the number of veterans on the streets has dropped nearly 50%. However, that decline slowed a few years ago, with a small but troubling uptick in 2017. Right now, there are more unsheltered veterans on the street than there were in 2016. Current federal estimates are  that approximately 40,000 veterans experience homelessness on any given night, with nearly 150,000 served by VA programs throughout the year. 

There are many reasons why people become homeless, and the challenges facing veterans can be complex. We know that unresolved legal problems are a main issue. Don’t take our word for it though —for the past nine years, the VA has conducted its annual “CHALENG” survey that asks veterans, community partners, and VA staff about homeless veterans’ needs.  Every year since 2010, half of the overall top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans require a lawyer’s help to resolve.

Legal services are important to ending veteran homelessness and everyone knows it, but the VA is specifically not allowed to fund or provide the required legal services. The VA provides invaluable technical assistance to the legal community’s efforts, but such efforts are limited to where and when lawyers volunteer or where legal aid offices or law school clinical programs exist. Lawyers have already given their services at no cost to low-income veterans for decades, but volunteer lawyers cannot satisfy the demand alone. The VA needs to be able to provide more help.

To fix this, Section 3 of S. 980 would give the VA Secretary authority to enter into private-public partnerships to deliver legal services to homeless vets. That’s it—a bipartisan budget-neutral proposal to address a well-documented problem. In the House, Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) and Steve Stivers (R-OH) have introduced that language as H.R. 716, the Homeless Veterans Legal Services Act. While the House Veterans Affairs Committee has not taken up the bill in the last three Congresses despite Senate support, a recent change in the Committee leadership may lead to a different result this Congress, particularly given subcommittee chair Rep. Mark Levin’s personal commitment to ending homelessness. Until that happens however, many homeless veterans remain in legal limbo.

The ABA, the VA, and the Veteran Service Organizations have spoken in support of this bill. The Senate is doing its part to make this solution real. If the country is ever to end veteran homelessness, the effort needs to include lawyers working with the VA to bring these men and women home. That can only happen if your Members of Congress take action. So how can you help make sure they do?

The ABA Governmental Affairs Office has created a grassroots advocacy campaign that helps you send a letter directly to your U.S. Representatives asking them to cosponsor and support H.R. 716 so it can finally be enacted this Congress. All you need to do is click here, fill in your name, email, and home address to see the pre-populated email letter. From there you can either hit send or add your own perspective for an even greater impact. Please join the ABA’s advocacy efforts and tell your representatives in the House to stand with those who stood for our country.