Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

2021 National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Annual Conference (Virtual)
Washington, DC
June 21, 2021

Good afternoon, everyone. I’m VA Secretary Denis McDonough, and I’m grateful to be with you as you begin your critical work this week, because there’s no issue more important than this one. Here’s why.

President Biden has said that our country’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and then to care for them and their families when they come home.

Well, Veterans homelessness is our nation’s single greatest point of failure in fulfilling that sacred obligation.

Every person should have a home. Every Veteran should have a home. Veterans served this nation, made the enormous sacrifices they have made, gave what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” so that no one would be homeless.

Given the extraordinary wealth of this country, the immense resources—tangible and intangible—it’s a tragedy. It’s an avoidable tragedy, at that, to have any people in this country without homes. And I intend to fight like hell every day so we bring an end to Veteran homelessness.

As you know well, there is a lot of work ahead of us. Veteran homelessness has decreased by 50 percent since 2010, largely thanks to your excellent work. So, we know what’s possible. But nearly all that progress was accomplished between 2010 and 2016. And in January 2020, before the pandemic hit, when too many were talking about a rosy economy, there were more Veterans experiencing homelessness than in the year before, not fewer.

Nowhere are the challenges of the last four years more evident than in LA, where the redevelopment of our West LA campus has languished amid one of the worst Vet homelessness crises in America. Senator Feinstein and Representative Lieu laid it bare in the Orange County Register. In LA, they wrote, “more than 3,900 veterans are living on the streets, nearly one in 10 of all homeless veterans nationwide.” One in ten.

Here we are, mid-way through 2021, and only 54 of 1,200 planned permanent supportive housing units on our West LA campus have been completed. Five years. Only 54 units. We have to move faster.

There are a lot of reasons for the delay, and we’re going to solve them. We’re going to drive progress on a successor Master Plan. I’ll sign it before year’s end. We’ll take to heart what Veterans, their families, the community, and our Federal Advisory Committee on West LA recommend.

As Senator Feinstein and Representative Lieu explained, “The West LA VA campus has the potential to serve as a model for the nation on how to address veteran homelessness.” It’s not a model yet. But I am committed to making sure it is. Because it will have an outsized impact on Veteran homelessness in broader LA and help us regain momentum across the country. It will help us get back the success we had in the beginning of the last decade.

Listen, I know you’re in a marathon, not a sprint. Most of you have been running hard for a long, long time—without rest. And here I am, just stepping into the race. But I’m joining when we have an opportunity, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make substantial, lasting strides.

That’s thanks to you and your collective experience and commitment; the strong support of the President, who’s seeking an increase of over $300 million in resources to fight homelessness in his new budget; the support of Congress, who have invested funding to fight homelessness in the last two years and, hopefully, are poised to enact President Biden’s request in his new budget; and our strong partnership with HUD and Secretary Marcia Fudge.

Secretary Fudge and I are aligned in our efforts. And we’re joining forces, mobilizing our departments to ensure every Veteran has access to safe and stable housing. We’re prioritizing the push, shaping and executing a joint plan to achieve lasting results as quickly as possible.

We’ll seek your feedback, taking careful inventory of lessons learned. We’ll evaluate current strategies and execute best-practices more broadly, effectively, and efficiently. And as we find new evidence-based approaches that work, we’ll implement them, too.

That’s why the work of our National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans is so important. They’re working to translate research into real-world solutions that optimize care. Already this year, the Center’s collaborated with 10 universities and produced 45 peer-reviewed studies.

And with HUD, Housing First will remain our flagship, because we know it works.

We’re investing more in HUD-VASH because of people like the formerly homeless Veteran Charles Farley from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Charles said that HUD-VASH is “one of the best programs VA has had because it’s helping Veterans find homes and get off the street.”

“It helps our Veterans a lot,” he said.

But we’ve had a HUD-VASH deficit that’s keeping us from filling as many vacant case management positions as we need. So, we’re prioritizing HUD-VASH hiring, with success. We’re at 88 percent of positions filled, a net gain of nearly 200 case managers providing services to over 4,000 Veterans we wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

And in President Biden’s FY 2022 proposed budget, we’re seeking a $45 million increase over this year to help fill other HUD-VASH staffing shortages. Our Homeless Program Office is also exploring ways to use American Rescue Plan funds in partnership with our Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care to support the growing population of older Veterans in homeless programs . . . think of that for a second, concepts you would have never thought of, older Veterans in homeless programs. In October, VA medical centers will contract for HUD-VASH case management services everywhere.

Here’s what else Charles will tell you, “One of the main problems is with landlords who won’t take HUD-VASH vouchers,” he says. And he’s right. We have to get more landlords honoring Veterans by honoring HUD-VASH vouchers. And we will. These HUD-VASH pushes will expand our capacity to serve more homeless Vets.

Supportive Services for Veteran Families—SSVF—will continue to be a critical part of helping Veterans out of homelessness. Marine Corps Veteran John Jackson will tell you that “SSVF is instrumental” to finding stability. In 1998, after tragedy hit his family, John became chronically homeless, moving from couch to couch, state to state.

Not too long ago, he found his way to a Salvation Army shelter in Jacksonville, Florida. Thanks to outreach and collaboration of the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities of Jacksonville, and our SSVF partner Changing Homelessness, John has an apartment and a steady job with good pay. He’s doing well. In the next few weeks, he’ll be back on his own. And those SSVF funds will be available to help another Veteran in Florida.

And alongside HUD-VASH and SSVF, Grant and Per Diem will remain VA’s largest transitional housing program. Army Veteran and combat medic Luis Alvarado says that Grant and Per Diem “is amazing and has done wonderful things for me.” And a proposed increase of nearly $2 million next year will help us continue to enhance this program that has meant so much to Veterans like Luis.

When he fell into homelessness in Puerto Rico, our team at the VA Hospital de Veteranos in San Juan put their arms around Luis and leveraged Grant and Per Diem to help. “They moved heaven and earth to help me,” Luis said. VA social workers got Luis into temporary housing with Grant and Per Diem partners at Hacienda del Veterano in Caguas, Puerto Rico. HUD-VASH vouchers got Luis into permanent housing.

And they worked together to help Luis into the VA apprenticeship program at the Puerto Rico National Cemetery. Today, Luis has been discharged from the homelessness program. He’s paying his own rent. He’s permanently employed. He went from apprentice to GS-6 in no time flat. And he’s getting ready to take the cemetery director’s course.

Charles, John, Luis—they’re living proof among thousands that evidence-based models work. They move people from homelessness to housing. They provide immediate access to housing and connections to services that ease transition to stability. They answer the needs of people who are briefly homeless from a string of bad luck as well as the needs of Veterans who’ve been on the streets for years. And they’ve been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure for vulnerable Vets, there have been almost 27,000 motel placements, part of the coordinated, national response supporting homeless Veterans since the very beginning of the pandemic.

Our health care providers, Homeless Program Office staff, social workers, and all of you continue herculean efforts in the pandemic fight. And we’re seeing promising signs: more and more Veterans vaccinated, fewer infections, fewer deaths.

And Homeless Program Office has been working hand-in-glove with partners inside VA. And they worked with Federal partners outside VA—HUD, Health and Human Services, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, and the Centers for Disease Control. Over 76,000 of the homeless Veterans we serve have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. And I know many more you serve have been vaccinated.

And to minimize the risk of social isolation and missed health care appointments, we’ve shipped over 31,000 smartphones for distribution to homeless Vets. Two new contracts will add nearly 30,000 more to help Vets stay engaged with their health care providers. They will help Vets continue attending virtual groups and recovery programs. They will help Vets with virtual housing and job searches. And they will help us monitor the well-being and safety of those Veterans.

So, our pandemic response strategies will continue evolving based on science and the needs of communities supporting homeless Veterans. But we all know the fight is far from over. The effects of the pandemic will reverberate long after it’s gone. And there are challenges ahead—among them, the end of foreclosure moratorium for VA home loans and the broader eviction moratorium at the end of this month.

We have a dedicated team of representatives ready to support Veterans with options to help them retain their homes and avoid foreclosure. We recently announced a temporary program to assist Veteran borrowers specifically impacted by COVID-19 pandemic to help them get back to regular, pre-COVID mortgage payments after exiting forbearance. 

And we’re developing additional options to assist Veterans who might need lower mortgage payments. Any Veterans with a mortgage challenge should reach out to us immediately at 877-827-3702 so they can see how we can help them. 

For the eviction moratorium, we’re concerned about the possibility of a wave of new homeless Vets. So, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening. That’s why we have dedicated funding that SSVF grantees can prioritize to answer needs as they arise. Because we are unwavering in our commitment to helping every Veteran we can.

Before I close, I want to leave you with a quick story. The other day at a vaccination event outside our headquarters in the capital city of this wealthy nation, a homeless Vet showed up to get his shot. He wasn’t wearing shoes. We got him vaccine, and our amazing canteen staff got him a new pair of shoes.

On the one hand, it’s heartwarming, an indication of great generosity. On the other hand, it’s heartbreaking. That man served our country. He should at least have had shoes on his feet. He should at least have a roof over his head. The fact that he didn’t is our nation failing to meet its most sacred obligation.

On Memorial Day, President Biden reminded us, “We owe the honored dead a debt we can never fully repay. We owe them our whole souls. We owe them our full best efforts to perfect the Union for which they died.”

And in the final analysis, that’s what our work together is about, helping this nation perfect our union by fighting for the Veterans who have fought for us, by making sure that people like the man at the vaccination event in DC, people like Charles Farley, like John Jackson, and like Luis Alvarado have shoes on their feet, roofs over their heads, and a bright future.

I’m so proud to work with you to make that happen.

God bless all of you. May God bless our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.