Senate panel OKs expanding VA grants

The Helena Independent Record

by John Doran

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday passed a bill that, if signed into law, could create job opportunities and better housing for homeless veterans, particularly women and veterans with families. With two amendments by Sen. Jon Tester, these services would be delivered to the struggling veterans in Montana and across rural America.

S. 1237 would expand the Veterans Affairs grant program that pays up to 65 percent of the construction costs associated with building, expanding or modernizing veterans supportive housing, and would create a new grant program in the Labor Department for the reintegration of homeless women veterans and homeless veterans with children into the labor force.

Tester’s amendments, which were unanimously approved, direct at least 5 percent of the funds for these two programs to frontier and rural communities, and establish an automatic enrollment system for demobilizing National Guardsmen and Reservists.

The 5 percent is what the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates is the number of homeless veterans who reside in rural communities.

“The five percent that goes to creating better homes and making sure that that money is spent in rural areas is important,” Tester said in a phone interview. “And that’s a minimum. They can spend more and that’s fine.”

The expansion of the VA program to offset costs to build, expand or modernize veterans housing could potentially help transitional shelters like the Willis Cruse House in Helena, the Poverello Center in Missoula, or the Independence Hall in Billings, which was built just last year.

“The need (for veterans housing) is great,” said Rick Nicholson, residence manager at the Willis Cruse House. “The bottom line is there are no other facilities for veterans and their families in Helena.”

Helena isn’t alone.

Teresa Bell, public affairs officer for the Montana VA, said the problem is widespread across the state. Approximately 70 veterans are on waiting lists to enter the state’s three transitional housing shelters, and the state’s only two shelters that accept homeless female veterans are at capacity with more in need, she said.

“There is definitely a huge need for transitional housing across Montana,” she said.

Tester agreed and said the new legislation could help transition veterans back into the labor force.

“After going to the Willis Cruse House in Helena, there’s incredible demand there, and it may give them an opportunity to get into a bigger facility there,” Tester said. “The one in Billings, they built it just last year and already there’s demand. You know places like Missoula, Great Falls, Butte, we have high veterans populations all over the state. Hopefully this will help and we can get them into the job market.”

Tester’s second amendment would create an automatic enrollment system for demobilizing Guardsmen and Reservists. The legislation would make enrollment for eligible members automatic but would not force any service member to use the VA.

Many veterans who return from service believe they won’t ever need VA care and skip the enrollment opportunity, said Aaron Murphy, Tester’s spokesman. While enrollment is possible at a later date, it is much easier to accomplish it at discharge where most of the paperwork is needed anyway, he said.

“This is really important as it goes to the health and the dental (care),” Tester said. “Sometimes we have Guard members and Reservists slipping through the cracks. It should help free up some time, too, of staff to get some of these claims fixed up quicker.”

Tester said he hopes to get the bill to the Senate floor and onto President Obama’s desk for signature by the fall.