U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced legislation today to improve and protect a joint U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program designed to help homeless veterans find permanent housing.
The so-called HUD-VASH program provides homeless veterans with a voucher to help them offset the cost of renting a home or apartment in the private market. To help protect the program from any potential future budget cuts, Nelson and Rubio’s bill would, among other things, prevent the administration from using any funds specifically-designated for the program on anything other than helping to provide housing to homeless veterans.
“The brave men and women who have served in our armed forces have made incredible sacrifices to protect our freedoms,” Nelson said. “We have a responsibility to provide them with the very best care that we can.”
“We must continue to provide our nation’s veterans the quality care they were promised and deserve,” said Rubio. “This legislation would make much needed improvements to the HUD-VASH program so that it can more effectively assist homeless veterans and their families.”
Veterans who receive a HUD-VASH voucher are able to rent a privately owned home or apartment while contributing no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. The homelessness program made headlines last year when the VA announced plans to shift more than $460 million that had been specifically designated for such programs into the agency’s general purpose account – essentially, defunding the program altogether.
The move infuriated veterans and veterans organizations across the country who spoke out against the administration’s plan. Facing a growing backlash, the VA eventually reversed its decision and announced on Dec. 7 that it will keep the program funded through Oct. 2018. If approved, Nelson and Rubio’s bill would require the agency to keep the HUD-VASH program funded permanently.
The VA’s sudden about-face over funding created more than just a firestorm from veterans groups, it also created confusion within the agency itself – and led, at least, one local VA facility in South Florida to begin rejecting applications for assistance. The sudden spike in rejections caught the attention of Florida lawmakers, including Nelson, who, in turn, immediately demanded answers from the VA about its overall management of the program.
The VA’s responses to lawmakers’ inquiries exposed a need for drastic reforms to the program, including the hiring of additional case managers to improve the program’s overall responsiveness to veterans and ensure that all available vouchers are being made available to the those who need them.
To improve and protect the program, Nelson and Rubio’s legislation would, among other things:
- Prohibit the VA from moving HUD-VASH funds to a general purpose account. The administration announced last year its plans to shift more than $460 million that had been specifically designated for veterans homelessness programs to the agency’s general purpose account. The move would, in essence, defund the program altogether. Facing a growing backlash from veterans groups, the VA reversed course and later announced it would keep the program funded through Fiscal Year 2018. Nelson and Rubio’s legislation would require the agency to keep the HUD-VASH program funded permanently.
- Require the VA to hire one case manager for every 35 veterans. In some regions, case managers are assigned up to 70-100 veterans at once, making it nearly impossible to effectively manage them all.
- Require the VA to expedite the hiring of new case managers. If a case manager position is vacant for 180 days or more, the VA will be required to contract out to a local service provider.
- Require case managers to be located within a reasonable distance from the veterans they are assigned to help. Some case managers are located as far as two hours away from their assigned veterans.
The legislation now heads to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for consideration.
A copy of the bill is available here.