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New VA memo nixes plan to shift $460 million earmarked for veteran homelessness

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued a memorandum this week that officially reverses plans to shift millions of dollars from a VA account dedicated to combating veteran homelessness.

Steve Young, VA deputy undersecretary for health, sent the memo Tuesday to all VA network directors, homeless coordinators and medical center directors. It states the VA will not reallocate funds this fiscal year earmarked for a veteran housing program known as HUD-VASH, in which the VA provides case management for veterans who receive housing vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The memo eased concerns among collaborators who help veterans get shelter through HUD-VASH.

Collaborators spoke out in December when they discovered VA Secretary David Shulkin planned to reallocate $460 million specifically geared toward the program into hospitals’ general-purpose accounts. Shulkin quickly backtracked after swift outcry from the collaborators and lawmakers, but doubts lingered.

“This does give us more confidence,” Leon Winston, chief operating officer of Swords to Plowshares, said of the memo. Swords to Plowshares is a nonprofit organization that helps house veterans in Northern California.

It was clear in January during a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that a rift existed between collaborators, such as Swords to Plowshares, and the VA.

At the time, Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, still worried the funding could be cut from HUD-VASH. On Thursday, Monet said the memo alleviated some of her doubts.

“The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans is pleased that the [VA] has announced a decision not to move HUD-VASH case management funding for the rest of the fiscal year,” she wrote in an email. “This commitment must remain in the years to come.”

Shulkin explained to Congress last month that his intent was to move funding from HUD-VASH into a general-purpose account to provide more flexibility for local leaders, who could then decide how to combat veteran homelessness in their geographical area.

Though the memo states the VA won’t shift funding in fiscal year 2018, which ends Sept. 30, there could be future changes.

According to a HUD report from December, there were 585 more homeless veterans at the beginning of 2017 than in 2016. It was the first increase of homeless veterans since 2010. Because of that, the HUD-VASH program needs a “reboot,” Shulkin said.

Winston would support more funding flexibility for local VA leaders but said there must be a process for garnering input before any changes are made. The VA’s lack of communication in December was worrisome, he said.

“The messaging was so mixed up, based on who you talked to and what day of the week it was,” Winston said. “It was conflated. That’s why everybody was so very troubled.”

In a hearing last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked Shulkin for more transparency, stating many members of Congress didn’t know about the proposed shift in homelessness funding until some nonprofit groups spoke against it.

Monet agreed if the VA were to make changes, stakeholders should know beforehand.

“We hope VA will carefully examine any changes it may propose to critical programs for homeless veterans to ensure there will be no unintended confusion for, or adverse impact on, the veterans these programs serve,” she said.

Tuesday’s memo followed another VA directive in January that delayed shifting the homeless funding. That directive said funds could still be re-allocated in fiscal year 2019.

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