Local agency officials recently addressed an array of issues facing homeless veterans, before members of the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, at a session in New Port Richey.
U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, chairman of the subcommittee, and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, ranking member of the committee, listened to suggestions on reducing veteran homelessness from a group panel, to relay back to the U.S. Congress.
Levin, a Democrat, represents California’s 49th congressional district, and Bilirakis, a Republican, represents Florida’s 12th congressional district.
Panelists were Joe Battle, director of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital; Danny Burgess, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs;
David Lambert, chairman of the Pasco County Housing Authority; Michael Raposa, CEO of St. Vincent DePaul Cares; Brian Anderson, CEO and founder of Veterans Alternative; and Mary White, a former homeless veteran.
“Today we’re here to examine and highlight programs and benefits to help combat veteran homelessness,” Bilirakis said, in his opening statement. “There’s been a significant amount of progress made nationwide in reducing homelessness among veterans, but we still have much more work to do.”
Burgess noted that Florida’s VA department implemented the Forward March initiative throughout the state earlier this year. This program teams state agencies with various grassroots organizations to find ways to deal with the crisis.
The executive director told the congressmen that strategies need to be in place to integrate servicemen and servicewomen back into civilian life.
Burgess also advised that the government should make the first initiative, approaching veterans with beneficial opportunities, as opposed to them seeking it out themselves.
“We have about an estimated 2,543 homeless veterans in Florida that we know about,” he said, adding that five counties have already been successful in ending this issue.
Burgess suggested that other regions of the nation could follow their example by having more community-based organizations invested in veterans’ welfare, while working alongside state government.
“As of 2018, Point-in-Time count reveals Pasco (County) and Pinellas County are leading in several homeless statistics, including veteran homelessness,” said Anderson, the Veterans Alternative CEO. “We lack the number of beds needed, and unfortunately cannot build and fund fast enough to keep up with the demand.”
Like Burgess, he emphasized the importance of community involvement backed by government support – especially as it relates to mental health.
More resources should be allocated to wellness programs in addressing the psycho-social needs of veterans, Anderson said.
“Homelessness is not the root cause – rather is a byproduct of several contributing factors, including mental health, medical and economic hardship,” he said.
Levin noted that earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide grants in helping states collaborate with veteran organizations to address psychiatric needs for those coming out of service.
The pivotal role of HUD-VASH vouchers
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program, also was a topic of discussion.
The federal government issues the vouchers to provide suitable housing for low-income people, the elderly and even veterans.
Bilirakis asked Battle: “What is the one message or need that I need to take back to Washington (D.C.) with me, that would make your job easier, or would reduce homelessness among veterans?”
Battle’s response: “How can we adjust HUD vouchers to be able to accommodate for rising rents in different areas.”
The VA hospital director stated that the program has been key in putting veterans into homes, and has seen its benefits.
“At (James A.) Haley, we have 1,060 HUD-VASH vouchers available for use and currently 119 veterans are permanently housed using these vouchers,” Battle explained.
However, as the cost of living continues to escalate, this has been a challenge, he noted.
In addition, Pasco County doesn’t have a sufficient number of homes to put these vouchers toward, said Lambert, chairman of the Pasco County Housing Authority.
The authority recently purchased property to build a 78-unit veterans housing community. But this, too, was a dilemma for the housing authority because various banks refused to lend the necessary funds.
Addressing the congressmen, Lambert said: “We respectfully request the federal government create regulations to do what you have already done in the housing arena – to allow banks to fund our projects.”
A first-hand account
White was one panelist who could attest to the importance of the voucher system.
“The program that probably helped me the most would be HUD-VASH and the housing voucher,” she said. “Without that, I would probably be couch-surfing with my son.”
As a U.S. Army veteran, White found herself as a single mother with an infant, when she became homeless.
With the HUD-VASH voucher, she was able to get herself and her child into an apartment, and various organizations donated furniture and food, she recalled.
White was able to go back to school with the help of the GI Bill, and the VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program.
She also was granted a voucher to offset costs for child care while working and in school.
She currently holds a master’s degree and works for the Department of Economic Opportunity.
At the hearing, she took the time to address the transportation barriers that prevent veterans from sustaining a job, as well as their need for proper dental care.
St. Vincent DePaul Cares also was instrumental in helping White get proper housing.
“Since 2012, St. Vincent DePaul Cares has been a leader in many of the areas toward the end of veteran homelessness – including the counties of Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk,” said Raposa, the organization’s CEO.
Since the institution began, it has shortened the time it takes for veterans to transition from the street into a home — from 180 days initially to 60 days now, Raposa said.
He implored the congressmen to help expand Florida’s affordable-housing trust fund. Under the Sadowski Coalition, various organizations have pressed lawmakers in putting housing trust funds toward the state’s housing programs.
Raposa noted: “2019 was the first time in many years that we saw the governor’s office and the Senate on the same page to release a historic portion of that money, but the House did not support it. We desperately need your help with that.”
The Sept. 16 hearing was held at the West Pasco Government Center.
Published September 25, 2019