VA Reverses Moratorium

Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon

We are very relieved that the VA has decided to reverse the moratorium on eligibility for Grant per Diem homeless services for veterans with Other than Honorable discharges and those who served less than 24 month of active duty.  Several weeks ago, we along with our colleagues throughout the country who provide transitional supportive housing received a memo stating that the VA Office of General Counsel had discovered that they may have been misinterpreting congressionally-approved eligibility and placing a stop on any new enrollments until a  legal opinion could be established.

We found this decision from the office of general counsel deeply disturbing and began working with our partners in community based care, the Veterans’ Health Administration and congressional offices to look into the decision making process and see how we could continue to serve this very vulnerable veteran population.  These veterans make up about 10 to 15% of the chronically homeless veterans nationwide as well as in our own grant per diem programs.  The memo seemed completely at odds with the President, Secretary Shinseki and our shared goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

Thankfully, Senator Patty Murphy introduced legislation to reverse the moratorium and the Veterans Administration quickly followed suit as explained in this article.

We will continue to work to ensure that this is not just a temporary stay for homeless veterans until a legal opinion is rendered. Instead we hope that quick congressional action will make it clear that our nation intends that homeless disabled veterans with Other than Honorable discharges be eligible for grant per diem housing and supportive services so that we can fulfill our obligation to end veteran homelessness.

USA Today – The VA has reversed course in the face of complaints from community groups and a USA TODAY query and restored aid to potentially several thousand homeless veterans who otherwise could have been left on the streets.

The assistance, for a category of homeless veterans who have less than honorable discharges, had quietly been pulled in recent months after a legal review of eligibility laws.

The support programs — called highly effective by community support groups nationwide — funnel money from the Department of Veterans Affairs through local organizations to provide immediate financial support or transitional housing for homeless veterans.

But after the legal review, the VA cut access to the financial support program in December and to the transitional housing program in February for all veterans with less than honorable discharges and for those who served less than 24 months in the military, the VA said.

These veterans are generally ineligible for VA health care, and the agency’s lawyers determined that ineligibility for VA health care rendered a veteran ineligible for homeless programs.

Community groups were shocked, particularly given President Obama’s stated goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. “There is something morally wrong here,” said Phil Landis, president and CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego, a transitional housing program that turned away 14 homeless veterans in February after the policy change. Ten had served in or during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Landis said.

“This is federal bureaucracy at its most heartless,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a senior member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, whose office received complaints. “(It) defies all common sense.”

VA officials said a law was necessary to change the eligibility rules.

“We would hope for some type of relief where somebody would look at this and understand that it runs counter to what the president, what the secretary (Eric Shinseki), what the Congress, what the veteran and what everybody needs to end homelessness,” said Vince Kane, head of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.

Murray introduced legislation Friday to correct the problem.

Late Friday, responding to a USA TODAY query, the VA said its lawyers were working toward a permanent decision on eligibility.

In the meantime, Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, restored support for all homeless veterans who had previously been receiving it, the VA said.

“This decision will remain in effect until a final legal opinion has been rendered,” the VA said in a statement, adding that on Monday it will notify community groups that administer the programs.

About 10% of veterans living on the street have other-than-honorable discharges, according to a national database on homeless veterans maintained by Community Solutions, a national non-profit group that fights homelessness and poverty.

Nearly 58,000 veterans were homeless in 2013 based on a one-night count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Other-than-honorable discharges often occur in cases directly related to combat stress, said Pete Dougherty, a VA homeless program official until his retirement last year.

Troops diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and substance-related infractions such as drunken driving result, leading to an other-than-honorable discharge, Dougherty said. Some of these veterans later become homeless.

Dougherty said the VA, in its earlier determinations about eligibility, had cut off aid to “some who need us the most.”

Source: USA Today, March 29, 2014, by Gregg Zoroya

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