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VA pledges $3.2 billion for homeless vets

By Ed O'Keefe

The Department of Veterans Affairs laid out an ambitious five-year goal of curbing the number of homeless veterans on Tuesday, pledging $3.2 billion to an issue whose impact has been felt more rapidly by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than veterans from other conflicts.

"No one who has served this nation as veterans have should ever be living on the streets," VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said Tuesday in Washington.

"In the past, VA focused largely on getting homeless veterans off the streets," Shinseki said. "This plan is different. It aims as much if not more on preventing as it does on rescuing those who live on the streets."

Roughly 131,000 of the nation's 24 million veterans may be homeless on any given night, and about twice the number are homeless at some point during a year, according to VA estimates. Roughly 3 percent of homeless vets served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but a 2007 study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that they become homeless faster than veterans from previous conflicts. While homeless Vietnam veterans on average first spent five to ten years trying to readjust to society, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can end up homeless within 18 months, the study said. Government officials and homeless experts worry the total number of homeless veterans could climb again 10 to 15 percent because of the current economic downturn.

VA's new commitment adds $400 million more to their current homelessness prevention efforts. Eighty-five percent of the total funds will go towards health care costs, as the department acknowledges that homelessness is primarily secondary to health problems, especially mental health and substance abuse concerns.

The department will expand current partnerships with the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal, state and community veterans programs. The efforts will also provide assistance to veteran-owned businesses by helping them qualify for federal contracts and ensuring they survive the economic downturn.

Shinseki invited thousands of government, nonprofit and faith-based homelessness experts and advocates to Washington this week to tackle an issue he vows to fix during his tenure.

"I’m the newcomer here today, so let me reiterate that this is not a summit on homeless veterans, it’s a summit to end homelessness among veterans. That’s our purpose," he said.

Shinseki -- a former Army chief of staff who once clashed with the Bush administration over its Iraq war policy -- has earned praise for his tough approach towards reviving a department described as moribund by lawmakers and veterans organizations.

"We've seen responsiveness from the VA that we haven't see in the past," said Terry Howell, an editor at Military.com, a veterans news and social networking Web site.

"They're quick to try new and interesting approaches to solving the issues that they're facing right now," Howell said.

By Ed O'Keefe  | November 3, 2009; 5:04 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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