Experts on homelessness all agreed on one thing in their congressional testimony Thursday: the Department of Veterans Affairs is an incompetent bureaucracy.
While the VA has set an ambitious goal of ending homelessness by 2015, progress towards that outcome has been decidedly mixed. A recent audit conducted by the VA inspector general found that 25 percent of veterans who called the VA for help with housing were unable to reach counselors.
Leaving voicemail messages didn’t help at all. Referrals often went nowhere. The VA dropped the ball in at least 40,500 cases. But overall, homeless seems to be trending downward. In Atlanta, for example, the rate of homelessness among veterans has plummeted by 50 percent, as noted by VA Secretary Robert McDonald this week at a conference. Last year, there were 1,000 veterans on the streets of Atlanta. Today, that number is only 500.
In the meantime, although the VA has continued to suffer scandal after scandal, the House Veterans Affairs Committee is quite removed from major controversy, maintaining its reputation for dedication and hard work, and while there were some kind words directed to the VA at the hearing, the majority focused on the department as an uncaring bureaucracy.
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“I have come to describe the VA as a bureaucracy that excels in skilled incompetence. I don’t know how they do it. They are the enemy to me. They don’t cooperate with me,” said John F. Downing, CEO of Soldier On, an organization for ending veteran homelessness.
Witnesses unilaterally agreed that housing policies in the absence of funding for mental health conditions and poverty is a mistake, as it does not solve the root of homelessness in the first place. Heated emotions broke out over the inability of the VA to recognize its own deficits. Currently, Veterans Affairs has around 20 programs to get veterans off the street, but for experts, the way to end chronic homelessness may never end until the VA provides real funding for programs dealing with mental health issues. At one point, frustration with the VA reached a peak.
“We have to stop funding this incompetent bureaucracy and make it accountable,” Downing added.
Others drove straight to the heart of the problem. Services, not just housing, is key to eliminating homelessness, and veterans often have trouble traveling 50 miles to medical centers for help. New, locally-based programs are needed which actively seek out these veterans, since obtaining accurate estimates on homelessness rates is very difficult. Most of the surveys miss accurate counts on female and post-9/11 veterans.
“Housing first at the exclusion of everything else is just nonsense. You can’t just have a place to live without providing extensive services to veterans. The operational funding is critical to maintain the stability of these men and women,” said Phil Landis, President of Veterans Village of San Diego.
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