Trump's budget could hurt efforts to curb veteran homelessness

Trump's budget could hurt efforts to curb veteran homelessness
Posted at 9:30 AM, Mar 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-28 09:30:26-04

The push to end homelessness among veterans would suffer without the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which is up for elimination under President Donald Trump's proposed budget, nonprofits and local officials say.

The council coordinates the efforts of 19 federal agencies that play a role in preventing and ending homelessness among all Americans. But the strides made with the subset of veterans — for whom homelessness has been effectively ended in three states and dozens of communities amid a concerted effort — make the proposed cuts particularly upsetting to advocates.

Homeless advocates in any given state consult the council, whose annual budget is about $3.5 million, on which strategies are working elsewhere as they seek to house veterans. They worry momentum will slow.

"We've learned how to end homelessness," said Nonie Brennan, chief executive of the nonprofit All Chicago. "It would be a tremendous shame if we were not able to continue to implement these strategies in our communities across the country."

Adding to the ire and confusion, the budget proposal also says the Trump administration will support Department of Veterans Affairs programs for homeless and at-risk veterans and their families, but doesn't elaborate. Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to support veterans, wants to give the VA a 6 percent increase.

RELATED: Who's helping the thousands of homeless, disabled veterans in the Tri-State?

Still, the federal government needs someone to make sure housing resources are well spent, and to look across agencies for solutions instead of just down at their own, advocates say.

"Without coordination and oversight and giving some thought to how the money should best be spent, the money may not go to the people who need it most," said Hank Hughes, of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.

The White House's $1.15 trillion plan, released this month, emphasizes military and other security-related spending and slashes many domestic programs. The proposal is the first step in a lengthy process that requires congressional approval.

Proponents of small government praised it. The interagency council, created during the Reagan administration, is one of 19 independent agencies for which Trump proposed eliminating funding.

"The federal government needs to prioritize what it does," said Dan Holler at Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

It's the community groups and local officials who know best how to help homeless people and other underserved groups in their area, he added. The White House Office of Management and Budget didn't respond to a question about the rationale for eliminating the council.

Navy veteran Stephen Matthews, 55, doesn't want to see a system changed that has helped him and many others.

"There are other programs they could cut. We don't need to go to Mars," he said, referring to legislation Trump signed last week adding human exploration of the red planet to NASA's mission. "Don't eliminate these programs that are helping people."

Matthews was homeless last year and now uses a federal rental assistance voucher to help pay for his apartment in Rhode Island. Some advocates fear that in addition to the loss of the council, fewer rental assistance vouchers will be available for the homeless. The budget proposes a 13.2 percent cut to the Housing and Urban Development Department.

The number of homeless veterans nationwide is down 47 percent, or about 35,000 people, since 2010, but there are roughly 40,000 more, HUD said in August. Homelessness among veterans is effectively ended in Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware and in about 40 communities, according to the council, including New Jersey's most populous county.

"We would not have dared to attempt such a bold goal without their leadership," said Julia Orlando, director of the Housing, Health and Human Services Center in Bergen County.

The council ensures agencies aren't duplicating spending and efforts, or spending money at cross-purposes, and it serves as a clear way into the federal process for communities tackling the issue, said Jake Maguire, spokesman for the nonprofit Community Solutions, which does similar work to tackle homelessness.

He's hopeful the president, a businessman, will learn more about the council and keep it.

"I think anyone who has worked in business knows that if you have 19 people working on something," he said, "you need someone coordinating that work."