New VA head: It’ll take longer to end veteran homelessness

By Jennifer McDermott, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — May 11, 2017, 9:23 AM ET

The new Veterans Affairs chief shares the goal set by former President Barack Obama's administration of ending veteran homelessness, but he says it will take longer than his predecessor predicted.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo–Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin appears at a ceremony where President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on "Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection" at the Department of Veterans Affairs, April 27, 2017, in Washington.

Reducing the number of homeless veterans nationwide from roughly 40,000 to 10,000 or 15,000 is an "achievable goal" for President Donald Trump's administration, VA Secretary David Shulkin told The Associated Press during a visit to Rhode Island last week.

"This is a continuous problem of people finding themselves in economically difficult situations and then being out on the street or going from shelter to shelter," Shulkin said.

Homelessness among veterans has been effectively ended in Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware and in more than 40 communities. The outgoing head of the VA, Robert McDonald, said in January that "we should be there" nationwide within a couple of years.

Shulkin, who formerly was VA undersecretary of health under Obama, said on Friday, "We're still looking at a multi-year process."

While advocates are encouraged to hear Shulkin's commitment, some wish he was more ambitious.

"My personal take is, the VA secretary is being cautiously optimistic about what can be achieved and not wanting to kind of set the administration up for a missed goal," said Lisa Vukov, who works to prevent and end homelessness in the Omaha, Nebraska, area. "I'm a firm believer in setting your goals big because you achieve more that way."

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said veteran homelessness can be ended during the Trump administration.

"There's no reason we can't achieve it if enough resources are dedicated to the fight," said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Shulkin said some veterans offered housing by the VA prefer other alternatives and high real estate prices and a shortage of available housing in some parts of the country make it hard to house veterans there. He sees the biggest challenge in Los Angeles.

Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti said that homelessness in Los Angeles is a long-term crisis, but that the city has housed more than 8,000 veterans since 2014 and he's fighting to ensure all veterans have a safe place to call home. Los Angeles voters approved a bond in November to raise $1.2 billion for up to 10,000 permanent units.

Navy veteran Chris N. Cardenas said there are some veterans who refuse help or have trouble accessing benefits because of mental illness or substance abuse issues, but 40,000 homeless veterans is far too many.

"That's a very high number," Cardenas said. "It can get down to zero for the ones that want the help."

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