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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

2012 National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) Annual Conference
May 30, 2012

Pat [Ryan, Chairman of the Board, NCHV], thank you for that kind introduction. My thanks also to John Driscoll for both his leadership of this coalition and for inviting me here today. Let me further acknowledge—

  • Secretary Shaun Donovan—a great advocate for our Nation's homeless Veterans and a strong and reliable partner in the campaign against homelessness. Shaun—many thanks for your leadership;

  • Barbara Poppe—thank you for your leadership of the President's Interagency Council on Homelessness [USICH];

  • George Basher—thank you for chairing VA's Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans, and my thanks as well to all the members of your committee;

  • Pete Dougherty, Lisa Pape, Stacy Vasquez, and the other terrific members of VA's Task Force on Ending Veterans' Homelessness—thank you for your dedication and for the energy and innovation you bring to this initiative;

  • Fellow Veterans, VA colleagues, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

It's great to be here, once again, with the people who do all the heavy lifting to end Veterans' homelessness in America. Thank you for what you do day-in, day-out.

Nearly two years ago, President Obama told Veterans, "[We won't] be satisfied until every Veteran who has fought for America has a home in America." The President has done everything he could to help end Veterans' homelessness in this country and to bring attention to this issue.

In 2009, the overall VA budget totaled $99.8 billion. Over the next four budget submissions, the President increased VA's requested budget from $99.8 billion to $115 billion in 2010, the largest single increase in 30 years; $125 billion in 2011; $132.3 billion in 2012; and the current budget request before the Congress—$140.3 billion. This has given us tremendous opportunity and, with it, we have clearly made measurable progress. It may even be significant progress—I can't tell just yet. I do know that the estimated number of homeless Veterans declined between January 2010 and January 2011, but we're not where we need to be just yet.

We may have had our four best budgets ever. If that's so, how do we ramp up momentum going into 2015—not next year, not next month—right now? Our homeless Veterans are counting on us to bring a sense of urgency to this fight—and I do mean fight. The hill gets steeper and the air gets thinner the closer you get to the summit. VA will continue to fight just as hard for our budgets as we have in the past. But at this point, more is not better; better is better. And we need to sort out what that means.

Each year, around 60 percent of high school graduates go on to college and university—some version of higher education. Of the remaining 40 percent or so, some undergo vocational training; others immediately enter the workforce. A few join the less than one percent of Americans who voluntarily serve in our Nation's armed forces.

I carry around with me two very distinct, yet incongruent, images of these young men and women who have chosen to serve in uniform. The first image—after basic training and arrival at their first units—they they quickly become valued and trusted members of high-performing teams. Maybe the best teams they will ever serve on—tough, motivated, and extremely dedicated.

With strong leadership, they perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous missions, as they are doing today in Afghanistan and as they have done throughout our Nation's history. On some days, they are asked to do the impossible—and they don't disappoint. Think of what they've been asked to do for over ten years now, in Afghanistan and, for much of that time, in Iraq. Ten years—do you hear me? I don't know if there's anything called a good short war but I know there isn't anything called a good long one. Do we understand what long wars do to people?

What the current generation has demonstrated has been nothing short of staggering in terms of courage, stamina, determination, and unwavering commitment—without complaint.

But there is a second image. Veterans suffer disproportionately from depression, substance abuse, and they are well up there in joblessness as well—factors which contribute to homelessness for some of them.

What's wrong with these uneven images? To be sure, there are far fewer Veterans in the second image than in the first, but both images are made up of the same youngsters who crossed that high school graduation stage. They are the same youngsters who entered basic training. How did we fail to continue the kinds of successes they all achieved while in uniform? Why didn't we keep those in the second image from entering that downward spiral towards joblessness, depression, and substance abuse that often leads to homelessness and, sometimes, to suicide? This is not about them; this is about us.

We are fighting a campaign to end Veterans' homelessness in 2015—a campaign that we refocused in 2009 when the estimated number of homeless Veterans was something below 107,000. By 2011, that estimate was down to around 67,500. We await HUD's announcement of the latest January 2012 point-in-time [PIT] count. We expect it to be below 60,000 to keep us on track for the next data point of 35,000 at the end of 2013, en route to ending the rescue phase of our homeless mission in 2015. Whatever that number is, it's still an estimate. We should be pressing aggressively to end Veterans' homelessness as soon as possible.

Remember, tonight at best, we still have over 50,000 Veterans homeless in this country. And that is unacceptable. As I said earlier, the President has done his part to provide us the resources necessary to reach our objective—and he left it up to us to determine how to get there. His commitment to ending Veterans' homelessness could not be more clear. VA's budgets for specific rescue and prevention programs has more than doubled in the past three years—from $376 million in 2009, to $1 billion in 2012, with a 2013 budget request for $1.3 billion—a 30 percent increase over 2012. This funding addresses programs you are all familiar with: community organizations, Grant and Per Diem, HUD-VASH, Supportive Services for Veterans' Families, and Veterans' Justice Outreach.

All these initiatives account for about 25 percent of the funding that ends up touching homeless Veterans. The other 75 percent of funding goes to healthcare directly, where homeless Veterans receive treatment. This account has also received substantial increases—from $2.5 billion in 2009, to $4 billion in 2012, to a 2013 request for $4.4 billion. We have also steadily increased our investments in mental health programs—from $4.4 billion in 2009, to $5.9 billion in 2012. Our 2013 budget request seeks $6.2 billion.

Other programs in VA's budget also contribute indirectly to ending Veterans' homelessness. In a tough economy, our hiring fairs and the new GI Bill—which now includes vocational training—help Veterans find, compete for, and win jobs. In January of 2012, we held a hiring fair in Washington, DC that attracted over 4,100 Veterans; it resulted in over 2,600 on-the-spot interviews and more than 500 tentative job offers. In June of 2012, we'll host a larger hiring fair in Detroit in conjunction with our annual Veteran-owned small business exposition; over 8,500 jobs will be offered.

VA offers the only zero-down home mortgage plan in the country and maintains the lowest foreclosure rate of any financial institution at 2.25 percent. In 2010, we helped 66,000 Veteran homeowners avoid foreclosure on their defaulted home loans. In 2011, we increased the number of "saves" to 73,000, but there were 13,000 to 14,000 Veterans beyond our reach. We will continue to find ways of helping every Veteran we can.

Ending Veterans' homelessness is a test of all that we do at VA. Among many others, it's a test of our outreach efforts, mental health services, substance abuse treatments, hiring initiatives, educational benefits, and housing programs. We must bring all our tools to bear, focus those capabilities smartly, and leverage this moment. We must get the very best out of all of our diverse capabilities—VA's and yours as well.

To get the best out of any operation, you have to be able to see and define your challenges. I said, last year, I've never been able to solve a problem I couldn't see, and I still can't see the homeless Veteran population with sufficient granularity to know how best to apply the significant resources VA brings to this fight.

The PIT count is, and will continue to be, an important tool; but we need a way to focus our resources. So we've begun to develop a working registry—listing every homeless Veteran, and Veteran at risk of homelessness, with whom we come into contact. We're testing the registry now and expect to have it fielded by the end of this summer—with a priority for always protecting Veterans' personally-identifiable information.

The registry will provide us a dynamic data base with which to both measure outcomes and account for investments. We'll be able to see who was helped, in what ways, and whether it was effective. With this knowledge, we'll then be able to devise better solutions to our two-fold challenge—rescuing Veterans who are already homeless while simultaneously, preventing those at risk of homelessness from slipping into that downward spiral.

Substance abuse greatly increases the risk of homelessness. I remain concerned that our tendency to medicate the mind with pain-killing or mood-altering drugs may be contributing to the problem. The experts need to sort this out.

Good news—we're doing more and better outreach to homeless and at-risk Veterans. Since March 2010, we have received over 83,900 calls to our Homeless Veteran Hotline—1-877-4243-838: 1-877-4AID-VET—resulting in over 48,900 Veterans connecting with VA homeless programs nationwide.

We have also begun outreach to the estimated 40,000 Veterans who come out of prison each year—a population known to be at risk for homelessness. We have 44 VA re-entry specialists who provide outreach at over 1,000 of our Nation's 1,300 state and federal prisons. Over 6,600 Veterans have already received re-entry services this fiscal year.

We now also have 164 VA employees providing Veterans in the justice system timely access to VA mental health and substance abuse services, prior to incarceration, to avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness. They have helped over 15,700 Veterans in the justice system so far this year.

We have conducted 315 local summits, bringing together federal, state, faith-based, and community-based partners—171 of those summits were conducted last year and 144 so far this year. These summits are critical to building partnerships that respond to the diverse needs of homeless Veterans and their families. We look forward to your continued support and engagement in the learning and planning phases of these summits.

We also appreciate your participation in VA's Grant and Per Diem Program, which now helps provide over 14,700 transitional housing beds and services to Veterans through partnerships with 600 community-based projects—including many of you in this audience. Our ultimate goal with Grant and Per Diem has always been to return Veterans to independent living and employment as soon as possible. We will continue to help resource Veterans' transitions from temporary to permanent housing.

Since 2001, the Enhanced Use Lease [EUL] program has provided approximately 1,100 housing units for Veterans, their families, and our survivors. In 2009 the BURR initiative, Building Utilization Review and Repurposing, was launched to re-use vacant and underutilized VA land and buildings to house homeless Veterans and their families. An estimated 4,300 units of affordable and supportive housing are now under development nationwide as a result of VA's BURR initiative and its EUL program.

Our EUL authority expired on 31 December 2011 and has not yet been reauthorized by Congress. If reauthorized, we have 28 projects in the pipeline that can provide an estimated 1,300 units of additional housing for Veterans and families.

The HUD-VASH voucher remains the most flexible and responsive housing option we have, thanks to our partnership with HUD and the leadership of Secretary Donovan. We have been authorized 37,500 vouchers and roughly 36,000 of them are currently in use. Another 10,000 HUD-VASH vouchers have recently been announced, bringing the total available to nearly 48,000—great news for homeless Veterans. We have hired nearly 1,500 case managers to assist Veterans by reducing the time it takes to get them and their families safely housed.

We have also worked closely with the Department of Defense to improve our collaboration on behalf of Veterans leaving the service and Reservists returning from deployments. We simply must transition them better. Secretary Panetta and I met for the fourth time yesterday to enhance the collaboration of our departments and to reaffirm our commitment to an Integrated Electronic Health Record, making it an operational reality by 2017. This is a significant challenge, but as they say in Central Texas: "You can't wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time. You have to do one or the other." We have rolled our sleeves up.

VA is also willing to learn from everyone and to share what we know with anyone—federal, state, private, non-profit, and most especially with the creative geniuses at the local level, where the war on homelessness has been waged for decades. This Coalition is our guide for such efforts, and I thank the Coalition's leadership, once again, for inspiring us all.

We do have movement, but it's too early to begin "high five-ing" one another. Neither should any of us take a knee as we approach the summit. Lean into the hill; keep climbing. The homeless are counting on us, and we're not going to disappoint. They didn't disappoint while they served in uniform, and we won't disappoint them now that they need us.

God bless the men and women who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.

Thank you.