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House hearing reveals frustrations with veteran housing vouchers

San Diego Union-Tribune - 1/15/2020

A federal housing voucher program has helped to significantly reduce the number of homeless veterans nationwide over the past decade, but tens of thousands of them go unused each year and many are withheld from veterans who don't meet certain eligibility requirements.

Those and other frustrations with the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program were heard Tuesday morning at a congressional subcommittee hearing that in included panelists Tamea Kohler, CEO of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, and Greg Anglea, executive director of Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services.

Appearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity chaired by Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, both local speakers said the VASH program should be revised and expanded to allow more veterans to participate.

Kohler revealed in her testimony that 31 percent — or 354 — of the San Diego Housing Commission's VASH vouchers issued last year went unused. The vouchers are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and VA referrals are required for veterans to get the vouchers.

Kohler said only nine VA referrals were made each month last year in San Diego while the attrition rate for vouchers that had been allocated was eight households a month.

"We're struggling to use those VASH vouchers," she said.

Compounding the challenge of getting more vouchers to homeless veterans was the high number of applications that were declined by the VA because of eligibility issues, she said. A six-month review of homeless veterans referred for VASH vouchers to the VA found that 91 out of 192 were declined.

While about 50 percent of veterans were declined VASH vouchers in San Diego, Kohler said 840 veterans had been identified as in need of housing.

Kohler said the San Diego Housing Commission also has looked into a pilot program that could shift referrals for VASH vouchers from the VA to the commission.

"It's housing authorities stepping up and saying, 'This is our business, we're good at this," she said.

The Housing Commission allocates all of its Section 8 housing vouchers and has connections with landlords, and Kohler said it may be able to get more VASH vouchers to veterans than the VA is making available. The VA, in turn, could play up its strength in providing health care and supportive services to veterans, she said.

In a timely development, legislators are working on making more veterans eligible for VASH vouchers. On Monday, the House passed House Resolution 2398, which would expand eligibility for the vouchers to military personnel who had been discharged with an "other than honorable" distinction. The bill, proposed by Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, now goes to the Senate.

Anglea said he had prepared to speak about the need for the bill before the subcommittee, but learned that it had passed the House when his plane touched down in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

Many veterans who receive an other-than honorable discharge are later discovered to have a mental health condition that contributed to them leaving the military he said. Those veterans then may end up homeless and without access to services that could help with the issues they are struggling with because of the condition of their discharge, Anglea said.

Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges or who have mental health issues also may have difficulty in obtaining their health records, he said.

Anglea noted that veterans with mental health conditions also have a difficult time navigating the VA system, and in some cases more than 75 percent are declined services. He said Interfaith Community Services is proposing a pilot program to work with veterans with mental health conditions and help them get connected with benefits they are entitled.

Panelists also included Keith Harris, national director of clinical operations for the Veterans Affairs Homeless Program Office, who gave a broad overview about the success and shortcomings of the VA's housing voucher program.

"It's clear our approach to homelessness is working," he said about the 22 percent decline in veterans homelessness since 2015.

Harris credited the VASH program with much of that success, and said 100,000 vouchers are allocated nationally each year. Another 14,000 vouchers, however, go unused, he said.

"With 37,000 veterans still homeless on any given night, this is too many unused vouchers," he said.

Harris said additional funds for the VASH program have been allocated each year since it was created in 2008, but funding for staffing of case managers has not caught up. The staffing shortage was a factor in the the many vouchers that go unused, he said.

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