Homeless vets get left out of recent budget deal

Housing for homeless vets
A 2009 survey by Wilder Research, a nonprofit health and human services organization in St. Paul found 669 homeless veterans living in shelters, transitional or emergency housing or on the streets. That figure is said to be low.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

The recent budget compromise reached to avert a government shutdown in Washington made steep cuts to a highly touted program that helps homeless veterans move into supportive housing.

As part of a larger package of cuts to federal housing programs, Congress slashed the $75 million HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program by one-third for 2011.

The cuts mean less help is available for this high risk group just when the need is growing. Many of the veterans in the housing voucher program have lived on the streets for years. Most suffer severe physical or mental disabilities or have chronic substance-abuse problems.

The federal government launched the program in 2008 as part of a larger effort to address homelessness among veterans.

About 250 people are currently using the housing vouchers in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. Advocates for homeless veterans hope to expand the program to serve veterans in rural areas.

That's a fraction of the number of veterans who need help with housing, said Kathleen Vitalis, executive director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.

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"We need this program as an option for some of the veterans that we serve," she said.

Vitalis said the program is successful because it gives veterans a combination of permanent affordable housing and VA services. Caseworkers help them seek employment, medical and mental health services and legal assistance.

"If they are left to be completely independent, their likelihood for success will be low," she said.

A 2009 survey by Wilder Research, a nonprofit health and human services organization in St. Paul found 669 homeless veterans living in shelters, transitional or emergency housing or on the streets. That means one in five of all homeless men in the state were military veterans.

But the one night count is considered low. Researchers estimate that about 1,500 veterans will experience homelessness over the course of a year.

The state's population of homeless veterans grew by about 7 percent between 2006 and 2009, Wilder Research scientist Greg Owen said.

"The loss of these vouchers for the state of Minnesota would be a significant loss, both for our plans for ending long-term homelessness but also for the veterans who can benefit from the housing opportunities," Owen said.

More than half of the homeless veterans surveyed by Wilder Research had serious mental health problems. More than a quarter reported serving in a combat zone.

Owen said the HUD voucher program works because it addresses many of the complex problems associated with chronic homelessness. He said many veterans have disabilities and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Permanent supportive housing is the preferred type of solution for many of the veterans who are returning now, who have really deep hurts from their engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan," Owen said.

Vietnam-era veteran Jim Blomberg, who knows many veterans who have struggled after their tours of duty, said the federal government has a special responsibility to help them.

"If there is one place you don't want to be cutting back it's people who have gone out and served their country for the liberties and freedoms that we all enjoy," Blomberg said. "So there are places where cutbacks don't make any sense at all, and that has certainly got to be one of them."

HUD officials say they've requested $75 million for the 2012 budget. If lawmakers approve, that would restore this year's cuts and provide vouchers to help put another 3,000 homeless into housing programs.