Days after Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin appeared at a Washington shelter with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to praise and applaud President Donald Trump's promise to house all homeless vets, the agency turned around and announced that it was pulling resources out of a major housing program. Now the VA appears to be backtracking on that plan to reallocate nearly half-billion dollars from the housing program, after experiencing significant anger and blowback from lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Shulkin, nominated by Trump and unanimously confirmed by the Senate on February 13, 2017, said recently that his agency was ending what has been considered a successful $460 million program that dramatically reduced homelessness among chronically sick and vulnerable veterans. The money would then instead be reallocated to local VA hospitals to use as they see fit, as long as they demonstrate that they deal with homelessness in some capacity.
Anger exploded over the decision from all sides. Advocates for veterans, state officials, and even officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which co-sponsors the program, attacked the decision.
"I don’t understand why you are pulling the rug out," Elisha Harig-Blaine, a National League of Cities housing official, said in an interview, via Politico. "You're putting at risk the lives of men and women who've served this country."
Harig-Blaine also spoke with the Washington Post:
It’s just unconscionable to take this action without consulting HUD or the many mayors who have been working so hard on this. The former troops who used these vouchersare the most likely to die on American streets.
“The VA is taking its foot off the pedal,” said Leon Winston, an executive at Swords to Plowshares, which helps homeless vets in San Francisco. He said the VA decision is already having an impact there. HUD recently put up 100 housing vouchers for veterans in the program, but the local VA hospital said it could only provide support for 50. In other words, the VA hospital cut support for the homeless in half.
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton took a moment to criticize the proposal and its timing during the holiday season.
Following a Washington Post report about the Trump administration's effort to divert the funding, Shulkin bowed to pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups who criticized the new effort as cruel and counterproductive.
“There will be absolutely no change in the funding to support our homeless programs,” Shulkin’s statement said. “… Over the next six months, I will solicit input from our local VA leaders and external stakeholders on how best to target our funding to the geographical areas that need it most. Based on that input we will come forward with proposals for the fiscal year 2019 on how to improve the targeting of our homeless program funding.”
According to government data, over the last ten years, 138,000 homeless veterans found permanent housing because of the program, known as HUD-VASH. And veteran homelessness has been down in that time as well - until the number slightly rose in the last two years. Most of that increase in homelessness occurred in the Los Angeles area, where housing costs have soared faster than incomes.
“Nearly 40,000 veterans experiencing homelessness on any given night and HUD-VASH plays a big role in ending veteran homelessness and decreasing that number, especially for the chronically homeless,” Randy Brown, a spokesman for the organization, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month.