On Saturday, tens of thousands of former members of the armed services will spend Veterans Day homeless — living on the streets or in vehicles or in shelters. And nowhere is the number of homeless vets larger than in Los Angeles County, where there are about 4,800 by the latest count, an alarming 57% increase over last year.
Given how desperate these veterans are for housing and services, it's extremely troubling that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has taken $264 million that had been earmarked for services for homeless veterans who are placed into permanent supportive housing and put it into a general purpose fund.
That doesn't mean the money has gone away. It hasn't — at least not this fiscal year. The $34 million that was always going to the Greater Los Angeles VA will still go, without the earmark. And local VA officials here remain fervently committed to using it on counseling, case management and other services for homeless veterans, just as they would if it were still earmarked.
But it appears the VA as a whole is backing away from its public commitment to this terribly important issue — and that the money is vulnerable to being diverted to other purposes in the fiscal years to come, depending on the priorities of the local VA directors. That's a bad idea. Veterans Affairs should ensure that housing its homeless veterans remains a priority by continuing to earmark funds for services for them.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a bipartisan group of members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies have separately written letters asking the VA to stop the reallocation for the moment.
According to a representative for Veterans Affairs, the reallocation gives regional medical directors the ability to locally determine the appropriate funding level for their programs. And we're all for local autonomy when it makes sense. But veteran homelessness is a national disgrace, one that went ignored for too long — until the last VA secretary before President Trump took office finally woke up to the severity of the problem. Housing homeless veterans must remain a national priority that cannot be watered down locally, and VA Secretary David Shulkin should make that clear. In Los Angeles, the VA has plans to build 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans on the grounds of its West L.A. campus. A potential cutback in VA funding for the supportive services could imperil that housing.
Shulkin has set five priorities, all focused on improving delivery of healthcare to veterans and preventing suicide among them. These are important goals. But it's imperative that he and the national leadership of the VA acknowledge that tackling homelessness among veterans is equally important and that it will not happen if it is not prioritized and funded.