Homeless Veterans' Advocates Meet Officials, Seek More Funds FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 13 Mar 1999 11:14:32 -0800 (PST)


FWD

   FOR HOMELESS VETS, A CALL TO REACH OUT

   Advocates Meet VA Officials, Seek More Funds

The Washington Post, 11/3/99 - John Mulligan returned from a one-year tour
in Vietnam in 1971 and slipped back into an average civilian life. He got
married, had a daughter. It wasn't until several years later, Mulligan says,
that he "began to feel the pain" of his experiences in the war, pain that
eventually led to an eight-year "walkabout" in a world of alcoholism and
periodic homelessness.

Mulligan, born in Glasgow, Scotland, and transplanted to America, left his
family in 1981 and began drifting between Portland, Ore., and San Francisco,
deep in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, the war echoing on a
replay loop in his mind. "I was lost," Mulligan says in a rich brogue, "and
I'm glad I left."

Tired of living on the streets, Mulligan finally sought and received
assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1993. He got a room,
joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began to deal with his stress disorder,
which he battles to this day. Now the author of a published and acclaimed
novel, "Shopping Cart Soldiers," Mulligan is in town this week to share his
experiences at the third annual conference of the National Coalition for
Homeless Veterans, which began yesterday.

Mulligan, other veterans, homeless-shelter directors, health care providers
and advocates for the homeless from around the country are meeting through
Friday to discuss the chronic problem of homelessness among military
veterans and to hear from VA officials. They will also press their case on
Capitol Hill for increased funding for homeless veterans programs.

"We believe that veterans, because they swore to lay down their lives for
this country, have earned some special consideration," said Linda Boone,
executive director of the National Coalition. "We are very upset that this
nation has not stepped up to that a little more, that we do not have more
veteran-specific homelessness programs."

Though exact numbers on homeless populations are difficult to ascertain, a
widely cited study done by the National Coalition in 1994 found that about
271,750 veterans are homeless on any given night, roughly one third of the
nation's entire homeless population. Other studies suggest that the number
rises as high as a half-million during various times of the year.

Of the 271,750 noted by the National Coalition, the overwhelming majority
were men and 40 percent were Vietnam veterans.

Mirroring the general adult population of homeless men, 40 percent of
homeless veterans suffer some type of mental illness and half have substance
abuse problems, according to figures compiled by the VA.

Pete Dougherty, director of the VA's homeless veterans program, said the
agency's budget request sent to Capitol Hill in February, while essentially
flat since 1997, includes an additional $50 million for homeless veterans.

Of that $50 million, $30 million is for federal grants for local homeless
shelters that provide services directly to veterans, a $10 million increase
over what is in the current budget. Dougherty said the increase demonstrates
that the VA is embracing the notion that providing services, particularly
health care, is more effective at the community level.

Although some activists have been critical of the VA's efforts for homeless
veterans, Ruth Schwartz, director of Shelter Partnerships in Los Angeles,
acknowledged that the VA has improved the way it provides services.

"The VA is doing more reaching out to community partners to help them
provide services," said Schwartz, whose group represents organizations that
cater to homeless veterans. "So while some might have said years ago that
the VA was sort of missing in action, from the point of view of veterans,
they have stepped up to the plate more recently."

Conference participants have also been been concerned about homeless
veterans programs run by the departments of Labor and Housing and Urban
Development.

The Labor Department's veterans reintegration program, which provides, on a
competitive basis, grants averaging around $120,000 to job training
organizations, has received from congressional committees an authorization
for $10 million in recent years but has never received actual funding
anywhere near that level. The budget request for the program is $5 million,
an amount criticized by veterans advocates as grossly insufficient.

Another issue under discussion at the conference is the difficulty faced by
single, male homeless veterans in taking advantage of mainstream HUD
programs traditionally targeted at families. VA's Daugherty said his agency
will help create a loan guarantee program aimed at encouraging developers to
create housing specifically for homeless veterans.

Also on the agenda is the persistent problem of reaching veterans on the
streets who often are unaware of the assistance programs available to them.

Legislation proposed in January by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and supported
by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, would require all shelters
receiving federal funds to ask visitors whether they are veterans and to
inform those who are about the help available from the VA, HUD and Labor
departments.

"These veterans simply have fallen through the cracks," McCain said. "It's
not a matter of money . . . they have not been made aware of their
eligibility."

Mulligan, who read an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript at the
convention yesterday, said the VA--and the entire government for that
matter--has an image problem to overcome among homeless veterans
disillusioned by their experiences in wars like Vietnam.

"Most of these guys just don't trust the government," Mulligan said, arguing
that a more aggressive effort needs to be made to get veterans off the
streets. "The problem is that nobody does real outreach work. If a veteran
does have the wherewithal [to visit a VA office], he's got a multitude of
forms to fill out and the process takes years. These guys don't sit still;
they follow the sun."

END FORWARD

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