COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill that would help provide funding to ensure every veteran has housing was killed during an Ohio House committee hearing on Wednesday.
There are about 730 veterans currently experiencing homelessness, according to data from Ohio's Department of Veterans Services. Legislators introduced House Bill 407, the Safe Shelter Initiative Program, to address this problem.
Veteran David Root supports the bill that was sponsored by Adam Miller, a Democratic from Columbus, and Jennifer Gross, a Republican from West Chester. It ensures that no veteran in Ohio is involuntarily homeless. It would also integrate veterans into housing and shelter programs, as well as provide nightly vouchers, funding for shelters and for monthly apartment rentals.
"Mental illness and the homelessness go hand-in-hand," Root said.
Root and veteran Iris Foster-DeNieuwe work to provide help for all veterans and try to combat homelessness. They said it all starts with mental health.
"It impacts everything and impacts your decisions," Foster-DeNieuwe said. "It just impacts your entire lifestyle."
Root made three cruises to Vietnam while in the Navy, and now he is the state legislative chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Department of Ohio. Foster-DeNieuwe retired as a colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard and is now a legislative liaison for the VFW.
"We're getting the things done that need to be done," Root said. "I just wish it could be quicker."
Root’s wish to quickly move this bill forward will not come true.
In a swift action, the bill sponsors proposed the bill be "indefinitely postponed."
Some veterans say the sudden killing of the bill left them feeling blindsided.
"They stood up, raised their right hand at one point for us," Ralph Veppert, a veteran, said. "Now it's our turn to raise our right hand and say, 'We're going to help you.'"
Veppert has 35 years of service and retired as a command sergeant major of a U.S. Army Reserve company. He is now an Army Reserve ambassador.
The funding from the bill would ensure that smaller shelters have sufficient funds to provide adequate care for each vet, he said. With rent increases, this funding could greatly help vets in transitional housing to stay on their feet, he added.
The reasoning for the cancellation of the bill was confusing and disappointing, the vets said.
Gross had a "previous engagement," so Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Haraz Ghanbari, a Republican from Perrysburg, read a direct statement from her.
"There was no need for the bill since out of 730 homeless veterans, 368 veterans received transitional housing, 330 veterans receive emergency shelter and 32 veterans that did not receive any housing chose to remain unsheltered," the statement said.
This decision was made while "working with interested parties on this bill," such as the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio and the Ohio Department of Veteran Services, the note said.
"If they’re going to set aside this bill because somebody says — that they really don't need it — I think they need to get back out into their communities and figure that one out, as I see it all over the place," Veppert said.
The data regarding veterans experiencing homelessness is collected every two years. In 2020, the VA and the HUD defined different levels of homelessness based on where someone is in the transition process and days spent in different housing options. It is then categorized geographically.
Veppert said that number seems low, but even so, the two organizations do not represent the entirety of veterans, and they should have been given a chance to address the bill, he added.
"While I understand the concerns from the veterans community about the ability to canvass folks, I would note for the record that the canvass that we just referred to does not necessarily include and ought to include those who have been separated for military service with dishonorable or other-than-honorable or dropped from the roles characterizations," Rep. Miller, the other cosponsor, said.
After talking with "numerous stakeholders," the sponsors determined that instead of going with "incomplete information," and moving forward with the bill in its current form, they would be better served and should continue to look at the issue in terms of how they "can canvass the actual total veterans homeless population in the state," he continued.
"The state is a source of funding for some of these organizations," Veppert said. "If they're not providing enough of it, then a lot of veterans are getting left behind. This isn't a 'falling through the cracks' kind of thing. I mean, we got a big hole — and they're falling by large numbers."
Just because someone has transitional housing now doesn't mean they are going to have it tomorrow, Veppert said. He does note that the Department of Veteran Services does a good job, but they have limited funds.
"The state has to step up," he added. "If they're going to tell veterans in general that, 'well, we don't have to do that because it's not a big enough problem,' — tell me what is a bigger problem than taking care of the veterans."
Miller said that everyone has the same concern that Gross and he do to address the homeless population.
"The Legislature needs to do more than just pay lip service," Veppert said.
Miller asked the committee to indefinitely postpone further action on this while they "get to the bottom of the discrepancy between the canvasses."
"We are going to continue to monitor homelessness among veterans to see if there is a way to increase long-term federal housing," the statement from Gross said.
News 5 reached out to the legislators nearly a dozen times for clarity on the decision-making process but did not hear back. The questions, including direct concerns from veterans and rhetoric clarification, were given directly to the lawmakers and their teams via email after the decision to pull the bill.
In the initial statement from Gross, she said she is looking to hold a round-table discussion to move forward. The bill sponsors did not answer when that would be.
"I know that a lot of times I see on Facebook where there are comments about, 'Which would you rather spend money on, homeless veterans or illegal immigrants?'" Veppert said, citing lawmakers who do this. "Well, if you're going to make that kind of statement, somebody's got to spend the money on homeless veterans."