Tester: Homeless women veterans deserve access to services

Senator pushes federal agencies to address disparities, says women ‘overlooked’

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester is calling for equal access to care and treatment for homeless women veterans, whose numbers have doubled in recent years.

Tester applauded recent efforts by the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development to reduce overall veterans’ homelessness, but said that the challenges facing homeless women veterans are being “overlooked.” Tester highlighted a recent government report that calls on the agencies to improve collaboration and offer better housing options for women.

“As we see more and more women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly critical that we do more to help them transition home,” Tester wrote department leaders. “Until every single veteran is off the street, we must not relent in our efforts to provide the services and assistance they need.”

The report calls on the two agencies to work together to gather data and improve care for homeless women veterans. It cited insufficient housing options that force women – often with children – to leave shelters because of unsafe and uncomfortable conditions.

Tester specifically requested that the VA and Housing and Urban Development take steps to better track the number of homeless women veterans, reduce their overall number, and identify gender-specific safety and security standards.

VA figures show the number of homeless women veterans more than doubled in recent years, even as the overall rate of veterans’ homelessness declined 12 percent in 2011. Tester’s letter also highlights that the unemployment rate for women veterans now doubles the national average.  
Tester’s bipartisan letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was signed by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). It is available below and online HERE.
Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will have the opportunity to question Shinseki in person about veterans’ homelessness at a hearing on March 14.


February 15, 2012

The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki      The Honorable Shaun L.S. Donovan
Secretary                                 Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs     Department of Housing & Urban Development
810 Vermont Avenue, NW             451 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20420                 Washington, DC 20410

Dear Secretary Shinseki and Secretary Donovan,

We appreciate your ongoing efforts to reduce homelessness among our nation’s veterans, and applaud your request for an increase of $333 million for programs to end veteran homelessness in the fiscal year 2013 budget. Recent reports of a 12 percent reduction in the homeless veteran population over the last year are certainly a testament to your hard work and leadership. Despite these gains, we have concerns that the particular needs of homeless women veterans are frequently being overlooked. As we see more and more women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly critical that we do more to help them transition home.

As you know, a recent Government Accountability Office report, “Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing,” highlighted an opportunity to increase collaboration between your two agencies when it comes to gathering data about homeless women veterans. As you would undoubtedly agree, without that data, it is impossible for us to have a clear understanding of the demographics of this population or to develop a strategy that can effectively address their particular needs.

The report also highlighted limitations in available housing options for women veterans with children. Although VA has a referral policy in place for temporary housing, it is not being implemented uniformly nationwide. As a result, homeless women veterans in some parts of the country are forced to return to the streets until they are admitted into the Grant and Per Diem or HUD-VASH programs. Additionally, infrastructure needs such as private and secure rooms and showering facilities are often lacking – placing women veterans in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations. We can and should do better.

In light of this report, we request responses to the following questions:

– What steps are your agencies taking to better capture information on our homeless women veteran population? 
– How do you track both the demographics and particular needs of this population? 
– What strategies are being employed to effectively address their unique needs?
– What improvements will be made to VA’s implementation of its referral policy? 
– What type of gender-specific safety and security standards will be implemented for VA’s Grant and Per Diem program?
– What additional steps need to be taken to reduce the rate of homelessness among female veterans?  

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that, although the overall number of unemployed veterans has decreased significantly over the past year, the unemployment rate amongst women veterans is now more than double the national average. As unemployment rates often directly correlate with rates of homelessness, how closely are your Agencies working with the Department of Labor to reduce the homeless women veteran population by addressing one of the underlying symptoms of their unemployment or underemployment?        

It is critical that we continue doing absolutely everything we can on behalf of the brave men and women who have already made tremendous sacrifices for our nation. Until every single veteran is off the street, we must not relent in our efforts to provide the services and assistance they need to find adequate and long-term housing for them and their families. In doing so, we must make every effort to ensure we are addressing the needs of our entire veteran population, particularly our women veterans, to ensure their needs are being met and they are not falling through the cracks. 

We appreciate your attention to this matter, and request a response to inform our views in advance of the March 14 hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on veteran homelessness. We look forward to working closely with both of you to address this critical issue. 

Jon Tester et al