NCHV Conference: Facing a Steep Climb

written by Ian Lisman
June 6, 2013

Things are constantly changing in the fight against veteran homelessness. While we are making steady progress, we continue to encounter new obstacles like outdated programs and mainstream integration that require new solutions and new ways of thinking.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to attend the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans annual conference in Washington DC, where all the important players were in attendance to discuss our progress on a national level and shed some light on the challenges that service providers face on the front lines of the war against veteran homelessness.

“The climb will get steeper the closer we get to the summit,” Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Shinseki told us during the opening plenary.

“All the easy cases will have been housed,” he said. “In the end, we will have the toughest, most difficult cases to solve: some prior failures, some behavioral problems, even some serious mental health issues.”

Secretary Shinseki and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan were both on hand to speak about the significant progress we have made toward the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 and the challenges we still face.

“I don’t think we signed up for just the easy cases,” he continued. “Until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets, our work remains unfinished.”

His frank but inspiring remarks rang true. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. And that set the tone of the conference, which was guardedly optimistic, with all of us aware of the many new challenges yet to be overcome.

With more than over 30 workshops infused with new, innovative strategies – on employment, legal services, target populations, and more – the conference had a wide range of focus. And several very important meetings were organized at the last minute.

One such meeting, a “town hall” meeting hosted by VA, focused on the quickly changing Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program. This is a transitional housing program funded by VA. It is one of the oldest, and until recently only, grant-based homeless veteran program. This is a program that is actually being threatened by our success.

This program reimburses providers based on how many of their beds are being used. In a world of shrinking homeless veteran populations, with more programs and options available, some GPD providers are struggling to fill their beds.

These providers have invested capital to create facilities for this program. So VA has begun offering them funds so they can repurpose their facilities into permanent housing. While this scheme, called “Transition in Place” (TIP) is a good fit for some providers, for most it is simply not an option because their facilities are not set up in a way that’s suitable for permanent housing.

At this meeting providers put forth a wide range of ideas to improve this program and the method of reimbursement. Unfortunately, we won’t see recommendations to reform this popular program until early August, when VA submits their finalized their report to Congress.

At the Public Policy Forum, there was an in-depth discussion about a bill currently moving through the House that will address the eligibility criteria of a homeless veterans program funded by the Department of Labor, the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP).

Though this program has been quite successful, it’s also been problematic. The main problem is that, in order for a veteran to be eligible for the program, the veteran must be homeless at the time they sign up for services.

That means that a formerly homeless veteran who has been recently housed would be ineligible to receive employment services under this grant. This “employment first” model doesn’t jive too well with the “housing first” model the VA has adopted (and which the Alliance supports). The bill in the House (H.R. 357) partially addresses this issue. It opens eligibility for employment services only for veterans who receive Section 8 housing like HUD-VASH.

The conference was a great experience, and the NCHV staff did a solid job providing content on a host of new issues around coordination, communication, and cooperation that we’re going to have to address if we are to one day reach a future with few or no homeless veterans. (And we will.)

Photo of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki courtesy of Jim Greenhill's Flickr Photostream.