Op-Ed

For veterans, having a home is not enough

The Welcome Home Act wouldn't help enough homeless veterans transition into permanent housing

Proposed legislation recently introduced in the Senate arrived with a name that is seemingly hard to argue against: the Homeless Veterans Welcome Home Act. It is a well-intentioned bill meant to provide support for veterans transitioning into permanent housing and to help them acquire furniture and other household items. Unfortunately, this bill is essentially window dressing that would simply leave many deserving veterans out in the cold.

On its face, the plan sounds great. It would establish a three-year pilot program to award grants to eligible organizations that would provide assistance to homeless veterans who qualify for housing approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A total of $5 million for three years would be appropriated for the program. Organizations would receive a maximum grant of $500,000 and eligible veterans as much as $2,500.

The problem with this proposal is one we see all too often at Soldier On, the nonprofit I lead that works with thousands of homeless veterans across the country and government entities to develop effective legislation and programs to help veterans.

The proposed Welcome Home Act tries to quantify and qualify the issue by requiring the VA to prioritize communities with the greatest need of homeless services and to seek fair geographic distribution when awarding grants. The result would be a narrowing of the potential pool of veterans who can be assisted.

On any given night, roughly 50,000 veterans are homeless, according to a recent "point in time" survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Through our work with the VA's Supportive Services for Veteran Families Programs, we know that as many as 200,000 veterans need health, education and employment services, and rapid rehousing.

Compounding matters is the sharp increase in the number of veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Roughly 12% of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD and upward of 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans do, according to the National Center for PTSD. We know there is a direct correlation between PTSD and severe physical and emotional health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, marriage difficulties and, yes, homelessness.

Perhaps most shocking — or maybe not — is that the proposed bill would create more bureaucracy. Any time taxpayer money goes to the VA, 5% to 10% is allocated to administrative overhead. We would cut waste and increase our success — and maximize the effect of funding for all veterans — if veterans received these grants directly through programs that already exist, such as Supportive Services for Veteran Families Programs.

Soldier On applauds California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, for taking the initiative and introducing the bill to help homeless veterans. But furniture is not the first thing they need right now. Rather, it is incumbent upon Congress to enact a comprehensive support system for all veterans regardless of income or circumstance.

Such a system must offer a holistic approach if homeless veterans are to carry on healthy, productive lives in homes of their own. Essential components include mental health services, substance-abuse treatment, case management, peer support, medical and dental treatment, legal assistance, employment and educational services, and even transportation — one of the greatest barriers to veterans receiving treatment is the inability to get to doctor appointments. And the services must be delivered to veterans where they live.

This approach should also include our first-of-its-kind, limited-equity cooperative model for providing housing. Dozens of formerly homeless veterans live in the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in the Berkshires in Pittsfield, Mass. This village offers furnished one-bedroom townhomes in which veterans own an equity stake. Ownership — combined with support programs — allows these veterans to develop responsibility and leadership skills that can help them secure and retain employment and regain the dignity they deserve after sacrificing so much in service to our country.

The homes include furniture donated by BBL Hospitality, a New York-based hotel and hospitality services company. Our partnership with them is an excellent example of how the private sector can be engaged to avoid the inherent bureaucracy involved when new VA programs are created to serve one specific need. We don't need new programs — we need to make the existing ones work better and for more people.

Household furnishings are certainly a necessary component to any program designed to help homeless veterans, or those at risk of being homeless. But on its own, and as a new VA program, the Welcome Home Act would not have the necessary impact. Our nation's politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — need to learn what really works when it comes to taking care of veterans who are living on the brink.

We can save time, money and lives by supporting full-service programs that already successfully address veterans' needs.

The lengthy list includes housing, PTSD and substance abuse counseling, transportation, healthcare and employment, all aimed squarely at those among us who were willing to don a uniform.

John Downing is chief executive of Soldier On, a nonprofit provider of local services to veterans that includes immediate and long-term housing.

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