The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reversed course this month on a proposal to shift funding targeted to house homeless veterans to be used by local VA hospitals for general service use, after facing opposition.
The program, called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH), combines rental assistance provided by HUD Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) with supportive services provided by the VA. The supportive services are designed to help homeless veterans maintain stable housing and help their re-entry into the community.
The proposal involved shifting $460 million in VASH funding to the VA’s Choice program, which helps veterans secure support services in their local communities instead of VA regional centers.
The proposal was originally buried in a September VA circular outlining fund shifts in a variety of programs. Neither HUD nor VA staff were asked for feedback in preparing the circular. Veterans advocates first heard about it on a December 1 call with VA Secretary David Shulkin’s staff, as originally reported by Politico. They told advocates that the VASH program would be ended and the funds shifted to the Choice program.
VA officials said that shifting the funds gave VA regional centers the flexibility to make sure that resources go where they best align with veterans’ needs. The local Choice programs are able to use the funds for purposes besides serving homeless veterans. The proposal would shift $265 million in VASH funds immediately, with $195 million more shifted in the VA’s 2018 budget.
Veterans advocates opposed the proposal, as did some HUD officials. All 14 Senators on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees VA funding had already sent a letter to the Secretary on November 7 opposing the reallocation outlined in the September circular.
Responding to the strong opposition, Secretary Shulkin provided a statement on December 6 that pulled back on the fund shift: “There will be absolutely no change in the funding to support our homeless programs. We will not be shifting any homeless program money to the Choice program.”
Veterans advocates were concerned that this move would draw resources away that are targeted to the most vulnerable veterans. They pointed to HUD’s expertise with managing rental assistance programs. There was concern if the local hospitals would be able to help more homeless veterans find apartments in the community.
The Senate subcommittee’s letter expressed their concerns about the VA shifting funds that Congress had earmarked for a specific purpose. They worried that shifting specific purpose funds to general use would have unintended consequences. These would include lack of funding for the VASH caseworkers and less rental assistance available.
The VASH program has served 110,000 homeless veterans through 2016. The program is especially important in light of a recent HUD report on homelessness in America. The report found that there were 40,000 homeless veterans in January 2017, and that the number of homeless veterans had increased for the first time since 2010. Homeless veteran numbers rose by 2% from 2016-2017, making up 9% of all homeless people. Almost 4 in 10 of these homeless veterans were unsheltered. Affordable Housing Online has an article summarizing the report’s key findings here.
Secretary Shulkin’s statement also noted that he will be seeking input from VA leaders and outside stakeholders over the next 6 months. The feedback will address “how best to target our funding to the geographical areas that need it most.” This input will shape budget and program proposals for 2019.
Congress is looking ahead to addressing federal budget deficits with program spending cuts and welfare reform. So, federal agencies are under more pressure to fill budget gaps. Veterans will need to stay vigilant to make sure that these effective programs continue to provide the homes and supports they need.