Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Homeless Vets Could Lose Housing Vouchers Due To Budget Cuts

The window curtain is a bedsheet. The kitchen is a tiny sink. It takes just five paces to cross the entire length of the day-to-day residential hotel room.

Jerry Wiseman, 42, doesn't mind these things that much. A Marine sergeant in the 1991 Gulf War, he is proud of his ability to live lean.

But he wouldn't mind more. And counselors who run programs for homeless military veterans say he should have more - to help him move from what is considered a state of homelessness into permanent housing, where he can count on his future enough to rebuild a career.

"My last job was six years ago, as a bookstore clerk," said Wiseman, who struggles by on a government disability check and is in physical therapy for a back injury. "I'd sure like to do that work again, but it's a little tough when you're living day to day."

The most dependable way, since 2008, to give former warriors such as Wiseman a permanent place to live has been a federal housing voucher that pays as much as 70 percent of the rent for homeless veterans while they get their lives back on track.

But that program is in danger of being chopped to the bone.

GOP singles out vouchers

The fiscal 2011-12 budget proposed in the House of Representatives by the Republican majority would eliminate funding for all 10,000 vouchers that the government plans to issue for veterans next year. The program that generates the vouchers, a joint project of the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, is the only one of its kind.

It's also considered a linchpin of President Obama's goal, announced last year, of eliminating homelessness among vets by 2015. In places such as San Francisco, which hosts the most ambitious housing program in Northern California for homeless veterans, the prospect of losing the vouchers has counselors and veterans advocates blanching.

They say it would be a damaging blow to recent advances in housing homeless vets.

Since the voucher program started in 2008, federal figures show, homelessness among veterans nationally has fallen 18 percent to 136,000 - a drop that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki attributed partly to the housing vouchers. Thirty thousand vouchers have been handed out in that time.

"The momentum is on our side," said Roberta Rosenthal, coordinator of homelessness programs for the VA's Western region.

"This is no time to stop doing what has been working," she said. "We need more vouchers, not less. The train is on the track and moving along - for it to hit a brick wall right now would be very sad."

High demand

Last year, 175 homeless veterans in San Francisco received vouchers, out of more than 500 who applied. Statewide, the need is just as great - more demand than the vouchers can meet.

California has more homeless veterans than any other state - about 20,000, or 26 percent of the nation's total, according to HUD - and studies from Stanford University and others have shown that new veterans who hit the streets suffer proportionately more post-traumatic stress disorder than their predecessors.

"The mean-spiritedness of this proposed cut is breathtaking," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "We're going to fight this all the way."

She and her allies will have a tough battle, however, because the Republican majority in the House will make it hard to muster enough votes to fund the vouchers. With a record $1.65 trillion federal deficit looming this fiscal year, budget cuts are inevitable at all levels of government.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield and majority whip in the House, maintains that because about 10,000 vouchers for veterans are still being allocated from previous years, there is no need to authorize more in tight times.

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