Don’t for­sake home­less vets

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

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 in 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.

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