One overlooked victory of the government since 9/11 has been the effort to decrease — and eventually end — homelessness among veterans. Tragically, the looming recession related to the COVID-19 pandemic stands poised to undue all that hard work.
But Congress can act now to ensure the nation is prepared to fulfill its promises to veterans. We are calling on them to do so immediately as part of the next phase of a relief package.
The Veterans Administration (VA) gets a lot of flack, often deservedly. But its partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), state and local governments and the nonprofit sector to reduce veteran homelessness is a true success story. In fact, in some municipalities veteran homelessness has been effectively eliminated. these aren’t small cities; they include localities such as Houston and Arlington, Va.
But if congress doesn’t act quickly, gains made will be wiped out.
As a preview, the March 2020 veterans unemployment rate was 3.8 percent, up from 3.1 percent just a year ago.
Over ten million Americans have already filed for unemployment. The Federal Reserve projects an unemployment rate as high as 32 percent with 67 million Americans working in jobs considered high-risk for layoffs.
Everyone understands that this will likely lead to a tsunami of foreclosures and evictions. Many mortgage lenders have taken generous and proactive action to delay foreclosures, but the rental industry has not entirely followed suit and, unfortunately, it is where the most financially vulnerable reside.
Consequently, the veterans in this population are at grave risk of finding themselves unemployed and homeless in the coming weeks and months. Only a significant and rapid investment at the VA and HUD will allow us to help them.
An increase in veteran homelessness is a certainty, and it is therefore why Congress should immediately appropriate funds to allow the VA and HUD to hire social workers and case managers to handle the already overburdened workload.
Additionally, it must provide funding that matches the demand for housing vouchers destined to increase under the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program.
Congress should also modify existing statute to allow veterans facing COVID-19 related foreclosures to utilize this program. Since the VA and Treasury Departments have underwritten many of these loans, this makes good fiscal sense.
Additionally, Congress must provide a major increase to the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment programs. These programs help unemployed veterans retrain and find gainful employment sooner and it provides housing assistance as part of their benefits. This increase should include provisions for extending these benefits beyond the traditional 48 months. For those recently unemployed, amending the program will help stave off a crisis.
For justice-involved veterans, who have difficulty finding employment in a strong economy, it may be all that stands between them and homelessness, or worse, re-incarceration.
President Trump’s budget requests generous and much needed increases to VA funding, but it was written before the coronavirus crisis and could not have accounted for the flood of need that is rising around us now. It also couldn’t have foreseen the cascading effects of increased homelessness — if left unaddressed — will have on mental health and even suicide rates among veterans. Evidently, this is a matter of life and death.
This is not a permanent solution; it is a down payment on the sustained, multi-year effort that will be required to live up to our nation’s commitments to those who have “borne the battle.” It is a critical first step, however, and one that must be taken immediately.
Veterans’ health, lives and families depend on it. Our nation’s integrity demands it.
Colonel Rob Maness (USAF, Ret.) is the executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy. Brian O’Callaghan is a member of the board and director of at-risk veterans services for Military Veterans Advocacy,
This article was originally published in The Hill: COVID-19 and homeless veterans — a looming crisis and is reprinted with permission