At Veterans Affairs, Change Comes Amid Renewed Opportunity

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Wednesday’s dismissal of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin via presidential tweet is the latest in a string of high-level administration personnel changes. But this particular change in leadership is different — for it also comes on the heels of the first increase in veteran homelessness in seven years.

In spite of these dynamics, however, the past month has been a good one for efforts to accelerate the nation’s progress toward ensuring all veterans have a place to call home.

Additional and focused resources from Federal and national partners have been announced, demonstrating an appreciation of the historic 46 percent reduction in veteran homelessness made since 2010.

Last Friday, the president signed Congress’s fiscal year 2018 budget. The legislation increased funding for numerous homeless programs across multiple agencies, providing communities with critically needed resources. These commitments are coupled with direct actions illustrating what is possible when local officials raise their voices.

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Following months of encouragement by national and local stakeholders, the bill also included explicit language preventing an administrative action proposed by VA (see page 18 under “Allocations”.) In September, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a memo realigning dedicated resources for case management and supportive services for homeless veterans to the agency’s general-purpose fund.

In response, national partners, service providers, and local elected officials had worked with Veterans Affairs and other federal partners, including Congressional authorizers and appropriators, to ensure the funding would remain clearly committed for its intended purpose. The inclusion of this explicit language removes the uncertainty that the department’s actions were already causing among service providers and local leaders.

Beyond the budget, an announcement by The Home Depot Foundation of a $50 million investment in skilled trades training builds on evolving conversations of how communities can improve the integration of employment with housing programs.

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Along with the Home Builders Institute (HBI), the Foundation has committed to train 20,000 tradespeople by the end of 2028 as part of a pre-apprenticeship certificate program.

In 2017, The Home Depot Foundation launched a pilot trades training program for separating military members on Fort Stewart and Fort Bragg. The first set of students graduate this month. The 12-week program, provided at no cost to students, uses an industry-based curriculum recognized by the Department of Labor that integrates work-based learning with technical and academic skills. The program has a job placement rate of more than 90 percent, and now rolls out on additional bases across the United States.

In addition to serving separating military members, The Home Depot Foundation is establishing an advanced level trades training program in partnership with the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA) for residents of Atlanta’s Westside community. Over the next 10 years, the foundation will expand training support to include the broader veteran community as well as underserved high schools across the United States.

Employment integration efforts are particularly important as more communities reach the criteria and benchmarks and transition to sustaining their progress. In addition, a number of cities are seeing significant increases in the number of homeless veterans and are beginning to focus more deliberately on the intersection of the housing and employment systems.

Supporting improved integration of employment with efforts the end homelessness is critical both now and in the future. With national data reflecting an increase in veteran homelessness, it is clear that communities cannot expect improving program efficiencies and effectiveness to be the sole path toward achieving functional zero.

Communities should continue to focus on improvements such as reducing the number of people entering the homeless system; minimizing the number of days a person or family is in the homeless system, and increasing the number monthly permanent housing placements. To support progress in these areas, local leaders must focus most immediately on improving access to existing housing.

Improving how communities connect people to employment and job-training opportunities is a pragmatic area to improve the ability of people to afford housing. This work should occur alongside longer-term conversations about how communities can increase the supply of housing overall.

The work to end veteran homelessness requires a permanent commitment. These latest investments present a unique opportunity to redouble our efforts at a critical time to ensure the historic progress made on behalf of our veterans is not lost.

With new leadership at the Veterans Affairs, it is critical that now more than ever local leaders remain focused on ensuring all veterans have a safe place to call home.

About the author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Manager (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter @HarigBlaine.