Last night the U.S. Senate approved comprehensive legislation to expand veterans' health care and education programs, improve U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) efforts to help homeless veterans, and make more veterans with disabilities eligible for housing-assistance grants. The legislation includes several key provisions introduced by U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) to enhance services for homeless veterans and streamline the process to help veterans get housing.
According to data compiled by the VA in January 2011, about 145,000 veterans nationwide spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. One out of every six men and women in homeless shelters are veterans, and veterans are 50 percent more likely to fall into homelessness compared to other Americans.
"I am pleased the Senate passed this bipartisan bill to enhance services for our veterans. For our veterans in need of housing assistance, we must identify those at risk and let them know that help is available. One homeless veteran is one too many and this legislation will go a long way toward our goal of ending homelessness among veterans," said Reed, who introduced the Zero Tolerance for Veterans Homelessness Act. "Our veterans have sacrificed greatly to serve our country and we need to make sure they have access to the benefits and support they earned."
The Senate bill includes several provisions based on legislation Reed introduced to improve efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans and reauthorizes a number of VA programs to help homeless veterans. The bill will expand eligibility for VA's emergency shelter services to include homeless veterans who are not seriously mentally ill. In addition, it enhances grant programs for homeless veterans with special needs, by including dependents of veterans and male veterans with dependent children. The bill also strengthens efforts by eligible entities to assist in case management services provided to the nearly 40,000 homeless veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program.
Reed led the effort to make it easier for non-profit organizations to apply for capital grants through the VA's grants and per diem program to build transitional housing and other facilities for veterans by streamlining the process for non-profits to be able to use financing from other private and public sources to break ground on new housing construction. This is particularly important in the current economy, when non-profits are stretched and have to be more creative than ever to fund new capital projects.
The bill also reforms the grant and per diem program, which serves upward of 30,000 homeless veterans annually, by requiring VA to report on how to improve the per diem payment process for grantees. The actual cost for providing care typically exceeds the allotted amount. The bill would require the Secretary of the VA to study the method used to pay providers, develop an improved method for adequately reimbursing providers, and make recommendations to Congress.
The Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act passed the U.S. Senate unanimously. It will help hundreds of thousands of ill veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina from 1957 to February 1987.
It will also expand critical health care programs for veterans, enhance specially adapted housing programs for disabled veterans, and strengthen veterans' benefits and improve claims processing.
Now that it has been approved by the Senate, the bill must be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives before it can be signed into law by President Obama.