The number of homeless veterans living on the street or in temporary shelters and cheap hotels is expected to skyrocket after the end of this month as the federal moratorium on evictions for back rent expires, top government officials said Wednesday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs "is deeply concerned about possible dramatic increases in homelessness when eviction moratoria are lifted," Keith Harris, national director of clinical operations for the VA's Homeless Programs Office, said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
As they brace for the moratorium's June 30 end, the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were planning to increase funding for rental assistance and boost the number of HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers by 70,000, said Richard Cho, senior adviser for housing and services at HUD.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended the eviction moratorium several times, most recently in March to June 30, and advocacy groups called for another extension at the hearing.
Lifting the moratorium at this time "could result in an unprecedented wave of veteran homelessness," said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
In her written testimony, Monet urged the subcommittee members to consider a range of factors that will come into play as the nation emerges from the pandemic and emergency relief assistance is eased or lifted.
"There will be a deepening economic crisis when unemployment benefits sunset. Similarly, the housing crisis will deepen when the eviction moratorium sunsets," she said.
Monet warned that "nearly 15 million Americans have accrued over $50 billion in missed rental payments, and veterans are among them. They will immediately be added to the 'at-risk' category of homelessness if unable to access enough emergency rent assistance or other homelessness prevention funding."
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said "the moratorium probably saved a lot of veterans from being evicted, and once you're homeless it's nearly impossible to get out of homelessness and it's very expensive to do it."
"One of the things we all know about homelessness is that prior experience of homelessness increases your likelihood of being homeless again," she said. She called for an extension of the moratorium "not forever but for a little while longer until we can get everyone back on their feet."
Harris responded to the issues raised by Monet and other homeless advocates by stating, "We're as concerned as anyone else in this hearing today about the possible impact of lifting the eviction moratorium."
He said the VA planned to push "significant funding" to Supportive Services for Veteran Families, the VA program that provides grants to private, nonprofit organizations and consumer cooperatives for assistance to veteran families. He also noted that the VA and HUD no longer bar veterans with other than honorable discharges from receiving HUD-VASH vouchers and said that unemployed veterans who fall behind on their rent would not be barred from rental assistance once they gain a job.
"If they become employed, that will not be held against them," Harris said.
A Failed Campaign to End Veteran Homelessness
Without directly criticizing the Trump administration, Harris and Cho said that the vaunted effort begun in 2010 to end veteran homelessness effectively had stalled from 2016-2020, with the number of veterans in shelters or on the street consistently estimated in the range of 37,000, among a general U.S. homeless population of about 580,000.
The most recent HUD one-night estimate, in January 2020, put the number of homeless veterans at 37,252.
"This number does not account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added to the nation's housing challenges, including for veterans," Harris said.
About one-third of the communities who normally participate in the survey opted out this year because of pandemic restrictions. HUD has no reliable estimate on how many veterans have been homeless in 2021. Cho said HUD did not expect to do another homeless veteran survey until 2022.
Harris said one of the main problems in getting homeless veterans off the streets was the nationwide lack of affordable housing since the height of the pandemic.
To address the housing crisis, Harris said in his written testimony that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, included more than $10 billion in funding for individuals who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
He also said Biden's proposed American Jobs Plan would invest nearly $150 billion in grants and programs, "providing HUD with the tools and resources it needs to build and modernize millions of affordable and sustainable places to live and revitalize communities nationwide."
The HUD and VA outlines to renew the drive to end veteran homelessness received pushback from Reps. Barry Moore, R-Ala., and Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who both questioned whether VA and HUD were overspending.
By his estimate, VA and HUD would be spending $41,963 apiece for each of the 37,252 homeless veterans in HUD's 2020 survey, Moore said. "This is an extraordinary amount of money."
Harris said Moore failed to consider the turnover in the veteran homeless population, noting that VA and HUD served about three times the 37,252 number during the course of a year. He also said VA and HUD had programs serving about 300,000 veterans that aimed to keep them in their homes and out of shelters and off the streets.
Cawthorn said he was outraged that homeless veterans were not taking advantage of the expanding jobs market. "I cannot reject what I just heard more strongly," he said of the calls by homeless advocates for an extension of the eviction moratorium and expanded rental assistance.
The moratorium was put in place "because people were not able to go out and get a job because of COVID-19," but currently about nine million jobs are available, he said. The jobs were not being taken "because the federal government is literally sending people paychecks to sit at home," an apparent reference to expanded unemployment benefits, Cawthorn said.
"It's absolutely ridiculous. The moratorium on rent has got to end," Cawthorn said. "It's absolutely insane. It's destroying so many of these landlords' lives, because so many people are unwilling to go out and get a job. It's disgusting, and it's un-American."
Harris and Cho did not respond to Cawthorn's charges, but Cho added perspective on the veteran homelessness issue in his written testimony.
"When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States and Americans across the country were told to stay safe by staying home, there were more than half a million Americans who could not do so because they had no home to stay in," Cho said.
"That includes over 37,000 Veterans who, after serving and sacrificing in our nation's military, were sleeping either in congregate shelters with beds spaced not six feet, but inches apart, or forced to sleep outside, face the elements, and be without access to hygiene and other facilities."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.