Fresh Fight Looms Over Aid to Homeless Veterans

Veterans Administration, after an outcry, last year scrapped funding cuts for the program to help disabled vets. But VA chief remains determined to shift priorities

Veteran Alexander Smith III moved off the streets into a transitional housing complex in Washington.
Veteran Alexander Smith III moved off the streets into a transitional housing complex in Washington. PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

WASHINGTON—Veterans advocates and lawmakers have for now beaten back an effort to trim some veterans’ programs, but a fresh fight over aid for homeless vets and other priorities is expected in the coming year as Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin pursues sweeping shifts in the way the department uses its resources.

Last year, the VA drew significant resistance when it tried to overhaul some veterans’ programs, including a move to reduce funding for a program designed to help disabled vets who are unable to work. The idea was to shift resources to other priorities, but Dr. Shulkin scrapped the cuts after the proposals met with an outcry from vet groups and lawmakers. Opponents said the VA hadn’t done enough to consult with veterans and other constituents before it pursued the changes.

Dr. Shulkin remains determined to shift priorities and make changes. “When you’re moving quickly—and I do feel an urgency and an impatience to fix the VA—I think being reminded of the value of getting input and feedback is absolutely a fair criticism,” Dr. Shulkin said in a recent interview. “But to say there couldn’t be better ways to make it work or ways we could use these resources more efficiently: I just don’t accept that.”

Dr. Shulkin, as he continues to seek changes, is likely to face continued resistance on multiple fronts in the coming year. In Congress, lawmakers from both parties are questioning any proposed cuts to its popular housing-subsidy program for homeless vets. Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said his committee would hold a hearing on the matter as early as January.

Veterans’ advocates, meanwhile, including  Leon Winston, COO of Swords to Plowshares, are also prepared to resist a cut to the subsidy program for homeless vets: “It’s not time to pull back,” Mr. Winston said.

The looming fight over the housing subsidies comes as President Donald Trump’s appointees elsewhere are pursuing deep cuts at other agencies—and often running into criticism as they do so. At the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to pare the department’s budget but has been blocked by Congress. At the Environmental Protection Agency, administrator Scott Pruitt has been pursuing a massive downsizing and dismantling of regulations.

The VA’s subsidies to homeless veterans have been around for decades but grew rapidly under the Obama administration. In this program, the VA teams up with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD provides housing vouchers and the VA provides caseworkers to provide extensive support to vets. Since its inception, some 85,000 of these so-called HUD-VASH vouchers have been given out.

Funding for the VA portion surged to some $500 million in 2016 from about $5 million in 2008. The number of homeless veterans dropped 45% between 2009 and 2016, but saw an uptick of 2% last year, the first increase in more than half a decade, according to statistics released by HUD in early December. There are currently some 40,000 homeless veterans among the 553,000 homeless in the U.S. While Dr. Shulkin proposed cuts to this program, he said the VA has increased overall funding to address homelessness.

Alexander Smith III, who moved off the street into a transitional housing complex in Washington, D.C., said he hoped to get such a voucher because he has seen what it can do to improve the lives of fellow homeless vets, who see the vouchers as their first reliable way to break the cycle of homelessness.

Mr. Smith and fellow veterans Larry Brooks and Eric sit in their room at a veterans’ facility.
Mr. Smith and fellow veterans Larry Brooks and Eric sit in their room at a veterans’ facility. PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 39-year-old Army veteran, currently in a facility run by the advocacy group U.S. Vets, said homeless vets see vouchers as critical to helping vets cope and manage costs associated with moving into a house, things like buying pots and pans, or sheets and towels. “They look at it as a way to start rebuilding,” Mr. Smith said.

“We’ve been at the effort to end veteran homelessness for close to six years. We’ve made a lot of progress,” Dr. Shulkin said. However, he pointed to the need to address other priorities and has proposed to reallocate as much as 5% of the VA’s budget toward initiatives such as suicide prevention and modernization of the department’s systems, as well as giving veterans more resources for pursuing care outside the VA system.

Veterans advocates first heard of the plan to reduce funding in September, thanks to a VA memo highlighting specific programs whose funding would be reduced so as to shift more money into a general fund of the VA. The homeless reduction program was one of several such reallocations, and Dr. Shulkin said the move was part of his larger effort to decentralize decision making at the department.

Critics say Dr. Shulkin too often announces plans to revamp in ways that take key stakeholders by surprise.

“There’s a lot of things going on over there that we’re finding out about as it rolls out,” said Garry Augustine, Washington executive director of Disabled American Veterans who said the best path is for the VA to consult with stakeholders before rolling out announcing policy.

Homelessness advocates said they tried and failed to speak with Dr. Shulkin about the plan. Kathryn Monet, executive director of National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said her group wrote to Dr. Shulkin, “but we didn’t receive a response.”

The resistance to Dr. Shulkin’s plans include some members of Congress who have said they will move to limit his control of the VA’s budget. “I don’t see the secretary getting the flexibility he asked for,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in a recent call with reporters.

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

 

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