Stars and Stripes: New bill would make extra pandemic assistance permanent for homeless veterans

by Nikki Wentling

A new bill in the Senate would make permanent the increased assistance given during the coronavirus pandemic to help combat the issue of veteran homelessness.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced the Building Solutions for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness Act of 2021 this week. The committee discussed the measure during a hearing Wednesday.

The bill would extend indefinitely the extra resources and flexibility given during the pandemic to the federal, state and local agencies that provide services to homeless veterans. Advocates have been warning in recent weeks that the expiration of these resources could create an “unprecedented wave” of veteran homelessness.

“This bill makes permanent the COVID-related safety nets that have become essential to providing the most effective care and support to unhoused veterans and their families,” Tester said. “These requests are not wish list items but concrete changes advocates have said are absolutely necessary in the fight to effectively end veteran homelessness.”

Tester criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday for not offering its opinion on the bill during the hearing. The department has had a copy of the measure since May 24 but hasn’t provided any feedback, he said.

“We want to help you,” Tester said. “We can’t help you if we don’t know what the hell you’re thinking.”

When asked about the lack of input, Mark Upton, VA’s acting assistant undersecretary for health, committed to delivering that feedback sometime soon.

“I know we are actively working on that,” Upton said.

Kathryn Monet, president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, applauded the bill during Wednesday’s hearing. Her organization coordinates efforts to end veteran homelessness with Congress, the White House and the agencies that provide support to veterans.

Monet has warned in recent weeks that, as emergency declarations for the coronavirus pandemic are lifted, the extra support for homeless veterans will also go away.

“The impacts will be dire on veterans,” Monet said.

One of the actions Congress took at the start of the pandemic was to increase the maximum rates for the VA’s grant and per diem program. The money went to shelters, which get paid for filling beds but were unable to house as many veterans in order to abide by social distancing guidelines.

Monet said that the higher rates allowed shelters to improve their facilities, space out veterans and provide better care. She asked that Congress make the rate increase permanent. Under Tester’s bill, the rate would increase from a maximum of 115% to 200%.

“The rate has not been enough in the past to provide the level of services veterans need,” Monet said. “We’ve been pushing facilities to space people out better, give veterans the dignity they need. They can’t do that at 115%.”

In addition, the bill aims to provide all veterans with case-management services, increase funding for veteran employment initiatives, expand public transportation benefits to homeless veterans and house aging veterans as they wait for placement in long-term care facilities. It also establishes a five-year grant for programs that help veterans with recovery from substance abuse.

The total cost of the legislation remained unknown Wednesday.