homeless veteransIn an op-ed titled “Let’s End Veteran Homelessness Once and For All,” published on July 30, 2014 across McClatchy platforms, First Lady Michelle Obama wrote:

At the beginning of June, 85 mayors, governors and county officials from across the country – and across the political spectrum – signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness. Today, we’re announcing that in the two months since then, 97 more state and local leaders have signed on – meaning that a total of 182 local leaders have pledged to end homelessness among the veterans in their communities by the end of 2015.

And although “as a country, we’ve never been able to rally the resources and the public will to get all of our veterans off the streets and into stable housing,” nevertheless Mrs. Obama is confident that things are different today because:

thanks to federal, state and local leadership and the determined, daily work of advocates on the ground – we’re finally seeing that ending veteran homelessness is not just something we should strive to achieve – it’s something we actually can.

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Most importantly, Mrs. Obama stated that “things are different today” because her husband, President Obama, “not only vowed to end veteran homelessness, he coupled that pledge with record funding and innovative strategies to get it done.

No where in her speech did Mrs. Obama make mention of the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that is responsible for administering programs of veterans’ benefits for veterans, their families, and survivors. The VA budget request for 2014 was $152.7 billion, $66.5 billion of which for discretionary resources — an increase of 4.3% (or $2.7 billion) over the 2013 enacted level.

The VA’s main responsibility is to manage a network of hundreds of VA hospitals, clinics, and benefits offices. In May 2014, major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care became public, resulting in at least 40 veterans who died waiting for care at the Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital.

Despite her grand promise, four months later, the problem of homeless veterans is little changed.

 reports for The Washington Times, December 3, 2014, that the VA-staffed call center, located in Canandaigua, New York, is the primary vehicle for the agency to communicate with veterans and community providers about support programs and services for homeless veterans. Theoretically, homeless veterans can call 24 hours a day seven days a week and speak with a trained counselor.

But an internal investigation by the VA’s Inspector General found that the VA has failed to answer, check on or provide prompt service to tens of thousands of veterans who had called its help line:

  • 27% of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans last year were unable to reach a counselor and had to leave messages.
  • That’s because call center counselors often did not log in or did not spend the entire day logged into the call center telephone system. Instead, calls were forwarded to the answering machine. In addition, homeless veterans who were referred for services did not always receive needed care because the call center did not follow up with medical facilities.
  • 16% of the phone messages left by veterans who couldn’t reach a counselor could not be referred to VA medical facilities because the messages were inaudible or lacked contact information.
  • 4% of the phone messages were not referred to VA facilities at all.
  • The call center closed 47% of referrals even though the VA medical facilities had not provided the homeless veterans with any support services. According to the homeless program liaison, however, VA medical facilities should attempt to contact veterans at least three times before closing referrals.
  • Altogether, 40,500 homeless veterans last year either were not referred to medical facilities or were not followed up by the VA to ensure the vets had received care.

According to the VA Inspector General’s report, “The Call Center lacked adequate management and operational controls to ensure homeless veterans had around-the-clock access to counselors and received needed homeless support services.” The inspector general made seven recommendations to the VA undersecretary for health, including ending the use of an answering machine and improving the call center’s accessibility before hiring additional staff.

In response to the report, Veterans Health Administration officials said they would develop a plan to strengthen services and availability at the call center, but added that 24/7 operations might be abandoned “to better conform to current and historical inbound call patterns.”

The VA Inspector General’s audit is the latest to expose the gap between the political promises in Washington to help veterans and retired service members. In 2009, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki launched the Zero Homelessness Initiative setting a target date of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The Department of Housing and Urban Development last year estimated that the country still had nearly 58,000 homeless veterans, not including “at-risk” veterans whom the Call Center was supposed to serve.

The most recent promise was made by Mrs. Obama in her July op/ed and a high-profile speech in June in which she declared that the mere existence of homeless veterans was “a stain on our nation’s soul” and “should horrify us,” and that “it’s truly our duty to right this wrong and put an end to veteran homelessness once and for all.”

~StMA

StMA’s article first appeared at Consortium of Defense Analysts.