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Protecting Those Who Served

Maria Cuomo Cole
3/8/11

In the short-term budget agreement reached last week by Congress and the White House, $75 million in housing aid for 10,000 homeless veterans was cut. At a time when we're pushing American soldiers to the limit of endurance, we just pushed 10,000 of them out of safe homes.

This mistake must be corrected in the longer-term agreement now being negotiated.

For the last few years, as troops have been returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates and nonprofit providers have leveraged resources to address an alarming increase of veterans who are without stable housing, including the chronically homeless and a significant increase in the number of women. Marginal living conditions, scarce employment opportunities, physical injuries and mental health issues have made veterans more at risk of becoming homeless. For female veterans, family reunification challenges and experiences of abuse during their service exacerbate that risk.

USA Today last month reported on a recent federal analysis by HUD and the VA, which found that in 2009, 136,334 veterans spent at least one night in a homeless shelter -- a count that did not include homeless veterans living on the streets. And that "11,300 younger veterans, 18 to 30, were in shelters at some point during 2009... Virtually all of the young veterans served in Iraq or Afghanistan."

With American Indians and Alaska Natives more than 2 1/2 more likely to join the armed services than all other ethnicities, care of our veterans is of vital importance to Indian country.

Agreeing that our war veterans in need deserve immediate assistance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs began a housing voucher program combining housing with case management and health services, because often, veterans are forced to choose between those two needs. They cannot afford a place to live where services are available, and they can't access services in affordable housing areas.

Already 30,000 vouchers have been issued since 2008, according to the agencies. To date, HUD-VASH serves as the only permanent supportive housing intervention.

The cut proposed this week will stifle the joint HUD-VA program from giving housing assistance to 10,000 veterans unless the funds are restored. Many of these veterans served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A growing percentage of them are women and young heads of households with children. They courageously enlisted in the military, served in wartime and returned home often to collapsed private lives, shattered marriages, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance issues.

Vice President Joe Biden said in 2009 that support of armed services personnel, during and after their active duty, is a commitment more important than all others. "It exceeds our obligation to educate," he said. "It exceeds our obligation for health care. It exceeds our obligations for all else... As you carry us on your backs, we will have your backs, and that is a guarantee," Biden said.

With this budget bill, we turned our backs on American service men and women who deserve much better. Leaders in Congress and the White House should work to restore this funding and work together to ensure every veteran has a safe home.

Maria Cuomo Cole serves as chairman of HELP USA (helpusa.org), a leading national nonprofit organization building supportive permanent housing for homeless veterans.

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