Helping America's most vulnerable®

Congressional Testimony

Volunteers of America officials testify at congressional hearings on behalf of policies and programs serving the most vulnerable individuals in communities across the nation.

On December 11, Executive Vice President of Military Communities and Chief Medical Officer, Dr, Jonathan Sherin testified before the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs. Sherin discussed the urgent issue of ending homlessness in the veteran population. 

ORAL TESTIMONY FOR HVAC HEARING, 12/11/14

Introduction

Thank you chairman Miller, ranking member Michaud and committee for convening today’s hearing. My name is Jon Sherin. I am a psychiatrist and neurobiologist by trade. Though not a veteran myself, I have spent my entire professional life serving veterans of the US military. It was just five months ago that I testified in this same forum on the issue of suicide in the veteran community and it honors me deeply to be here again testifying on homelessness, another true emergency confronting too many former service members.

As a reminder, I worked for over a decade in VA, last as chief of mental health at the Miami VA. Three years ago I left that post to join Volunteers of America, a large nonprofit whose legacy in this arena dates back to serving Civil War veterans. Today, providing for veterans is Volunteers of America’s top priority. This past year we housed and supported more than 20,000 homeless veterans in communities across the country.

Let me begin my testimony by making clear that ending veteran homelessness will require more than finding shelter for all homeless veterans. It will also require making sure that they have timely access to both a full range of services (including family support, mental health care, addiction treatment, legal aid, benefits assistance and financial coaching) as well as a full range of opportunities (including education, training and meaningful jobs).

At present, there are a number of federal programs that have been very effective at bringing homeless veteran numbers down, due in large part to Congressional support. Further success will rely upon Congress continuing to provide unprecedented resource and oversight to these efforts within federal agencies, but also in relation to multi-sector partnerships. To this end, I applaud the committee for inviting input from the partners on this panel. In the remainder of my testimony I will summarize recommendations for select federal programs and suggest adding a peer-peer strategy to bolster our efforts.

Regarding Select Federal Programs

The following recommendations are made based on my own personal experience and input from numerous colleagues in both VA and community. They are meant as guidelines to more effectively help homeless veterans:

1. In markets where VA’s Grant & Per Diem transitional housing inventory is not fully utilized it should be repurposed to better match local supply with local demand. No inventory should be dismantled, shelved or otherwise deactivated until we end veteran homelessness;

2. The VA’s Safe Haven transitional housing program is highly effective for chronic, recidivistic homeless veterans and has changed the life trajectory of many for whom all other interventions have failed, some over the course of decades. These programs tend to be full; as such, more Safe Haven inventory needs to be developed.

3. HUD and VA’s HUD-VASH permanent housing program is highly effective, but only when adequately enriched by services alongside housing (in accordance with the housing first model). In markets where VA is not equipped to provide adequate services, it is recommended that community partners be leveraged to do so.

4. The Support Services for Veteran Families program, created and administered by VA’s National Center for Homelessness in Philadelphia, is a game-changer that has successfully served a massive number of veterans in a short period of time through a streamlined partnership process. It make sense to expand the scope and reach of this program by including mental health as well as employment offerings and by loosening eligibility requirements.

In terms of A Peer-Peer Strategy

1. It would make sense to activate a robust, community-based workforce of trained and certified peers who can drive outreach, resource navigation and advocacy for homeless veterans. Peers could be deployed to suitable VA campuses, housing facilities and service centers and charged to connect homeless veterans to both VA and community resources. They could also be leveraged for the same purpose through the (homeless) crisis line, 211 exchanges and web-based portals such as PosRep.

2. Resource to fuel this workforce could be generated by approving veteran peer support training for VA work-study and/or by enrichment of the Support Services grant.

Concluding Remarks

We must actively embrace a philosophy, create a culture and insist on policies that hold us accountable for addressing the vast array of challenges known to emerge for some veterans in the context of civilian life because it is these challenges that predictably precede the loss of a place to call “home”, something all us need for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is through your informed legislative stewardship that our country can promote conditions in which all sectors come together to form cohesive American communities that welcome veterans home, ensure they receive the services they need and provide them ample opportunities to thrive.

Thank you for your time and attention.