In the fog of a historic budget battle, Democrats are exaggerating the impact of proposed GOP cuts on homeless military veterans.
A GOP budget bill approved by the House in February would not fund 10,000 new housing vouchers for homeless veterans this fiscal year as Congress has done every year since 2008. The proposal has led to false and misleading charges and countercharges over what would happen to homeless veterans under the GOP plan.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California wrongly claimed the GOP bill would result in "10,000 veterans who literally could be in the streets and die." It's not true that the cuts will deny housing to 10,000 homeless veterans. The program has enough vouchers from previous years to carry it through fiscal year 2011. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says the program has accumulated nearly 30,000 vouchers since its inception in 2008 and it will take until November or December for them to be used for housing veterans. That's after the 2011 fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
But, in his defense of the budget cuts, Republican Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa overstates his case when he says the program has "11,000 vouchers waiting to be used." The Veterans Administration, which jointly runs the program with HUD, says all but 2,406 of the 29,950 vouchers have either been used for housing (20,693), or assigned to veterans (6,851) who are in VA treatment programs or in various stages of obtaining housing.
Republicans say the interruption in funding is temporary to allow the VA and HUD to absorb vouchers it received in prior years. If funding for new vouchers is resumed in fiscal year 2012, then there will be little or no impact on homeless veterans.
At a time when the nation is engaged militarily in three foreign countries, the image of homeless veterans can be a powerful symbol in the partisan war to win the hearts and minds of the American public. As a result, Democrats have seized on a single line item contained in the fiscal year 2011 budget bill the GOP-controlled House passed Feb. 19.
Since fiscal year 2008, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program has received $75 million each year for about 10,000 new housing vouchers. HUD-VASH now has 29,950 vouchers to house military veterans who are homeless, agree to participate in case management, and meet VA health care requirements. Each voucher is worth roughly $7,500 to help pay rent in public housing apartments and funding for those vouchers is renewed every year, so the veterans using them can remain in permanent housing for as long as they qualify. When veterans leave the program, those vouchers can be given to another homeless veteran.
The GOP bill would continue funding for the existing 29,950 vouchers. But it would not provide $75 million for an additional 10,000 in new vouchers, as Congress has done now for three straight years.
'The Truth About These Numbers'
Congress has yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2011, which began Oct. 1, 2010, and both sides are desperate to avoid a public backlash if the latest attempt to pass a permanent budget fails, and results in a partial government shutdown. In a March 10 press conference, a group of Senate Democrats — including Sen. Barbara Boxer of California — sought to blame Republicans for being unreasonable, citing its proposed cut in the veterans housing program.
Boxer, March 10: What we Democrats are now trying to do is tell the truth about these numbers. … If you get rid of this program, this is 10,000 vouchers,10,000 veterans who literally could be in the streets and die, get very ill.
The truth is that budget cuts would not prevent 10,000 homeless veterans from obtaining permanent housing this year, because HUD-VASH has yet to use all of the vouchers it had received in previous years.
HUD received 29,950 vouchers in the first three years of the program (fiscal years 2008 through 2010) and, as of March 30, 2011, it had 20,693 currently under lease, according to a program status update provided to us April 8 by the VA. According to an e-mail HUD sent to the House Committee on Appropriations on March 17, the housing agency projects it will have 27,000 veterans in housing by the end of the fiscal year, so not all 29,950 vouchers will be under lease. HUD and the VA expect to meet a goal of "full leasing" — defined as having 28,500 to 29,000 vouchers under lease — by November or December of 2011, which of course would be in fiscal year 2012. "Note that the VA has also had the opportunity to review these numbers and the goal of full leasing and is in agreement with HUD on both counts," HUD said in its March 17 e-mail. (The Republican staff made three HUD e-mails available to us for this article.)
Why has HUD not been able to issue all 30,000 vouchers since it began in fiscal year 2008? As HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan described in a July 13, 2010 speech, HUD-VASH got off to a "bumpy start." In his speech, Donovan said a "little more than 5,700" of the available "20,000 vouchers in 2008 and 2009" were used. The program was hampered by start-up problems, such as not having enough VA case managers to handle the demand. Donovan was concerned enough about the program that he did not request funding for it when the administration submitted its budget for fiscal year 2011 in February 2010. As he explained at a Senate hearing on May 20, 2010, the agency planned to use fiscal year 2011 to make sure the program was running "effectively and efficiently as possible" and "will continue to asses progress being made … as we consider additional resources that might be needed for HUD-VASH."
However, even as he gave his testimony, Donovan's position on funding was changing. He also told the senators (about 66 minutes and 32 seconds into his taped testimony) that he saw "very, very substantial progress" in issuing vouchers since he submitted his budget request three months prior, and he asked that HUD and appropriators "continue the conversation" about additional funding for fiscal year 2011.
In his July 13 speech, Donovan announced that the House appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011 — back when Democrats still controlled the House — would include money for an additional 10,000 vouchers, and he promised to put them to use "immediately." Both the House and Senate bills included $75 million for HUD-VASH, but neither became law. Congress went on recess for the midterm elections before passing a fiscal year 2011 budget, and now the Republicans are in control of the budget process in the House.
Vouchers 'Waiting' to be Used?
In a Feb. 15 floor speech, Republican Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa made the point that no vets would be "out in the cold" because of the GOP budget cuts. The HUD statistics support that claim, but that's not the whole story.
Latham, Feb. 15: The fact of the matter is there will not be a veteran, a homeless vet, that will not get a voucher. The fact of the matter is there are 30,000 vouchers available today. Only 19,000 of those have been used. There are 11,000 vouchers waiting …. So any kind of characterization that we're putting vets out in the cold is absolutely untrue. You have your opinion, but the facts speak for themselves.
Latham, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees HUD funding, was referring only to HUD figures on leased vouchers — that is, vouchers that are being used to house homeless veterans. His figures, although right at the time, are now a little outdated. As of January, there were 19,169 vouchers under lease.
But more importantly, the program is run jointly by VA and HUD, and VA's role is important to gauge the true impact of the GOP budget cut. As the VA explained to us, vouchers are reserved or assigned to homeless veterans long before the veterans obtain housing. Most of the 9,257 vouchers yet to be used for leases are actually spoken for. There were 6,851 vouchers assigned to veterans who have yet to obtain housing for various reasons. They are:
- 3,836 vouchers were issued to veterans who are still looking for housing, a process that we're told can take about four months;
- 1,868 vouchers were "reserved for veterans who are undergoing Public Housing Authority (PHA) validation," since all tenants must meet certain PHA requirements;
- 1,147 vouchers were reserved for veterans in treatment programs for substance abuse or other programs that contribute to homelessness.
The number of unassigned vouchers available for use is 2,406, the VA says. Latham overstates his case by making it seem that HUD-VASH is awash in unused vouchers. It's more complicated than that. Still, it's clear that there will be little or no immediate impact on homeless veterans if these cuts goes through. Contrary to Boxer's claim, the cuts won't prevent 10,000 veterans from being housed this year.
What happens next fiscal year is another matter. We can't predict the future, but Latham's spokesman Fred Love said the funding for new housing vouchers is being suspended for a year, rather than being permanently eliminated. That's inherent in Latham's case for why the Republican plan will not "put vets out in the cold." And the facts support him.
— by Eugene Kiely, with Michael Morse
U.S. House, H.R. 1, roll call vote #147. 19 Feb 2011.
Department of Housing and Urban Development. "HUD-VASH Vouchers." Undated, accessed 6 Apr 2011.
Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the 2010 NAEH Annual National Conference on Ending Homelessness." 13 Jul 2010.
U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations. "Video of Hearing on Ending Veterans' Homelessness." 20 May 2010.
U.S. House, "H.R. 5850, Making Appropriations for the Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, and for other purposes." 26 Jul 2010.
U.S. Senate, "S. 3644, Making Appropriations for the Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, and for other purposes." 23 Jul 2010.
Fred Love, spokesman, Rep. Tom Latham. E-mails sent to FactCheck.org. 5 Apr 2011. Drew Brookie, spokesman, Department of Veterans Affairs. E-mails sent to FactCheck.org 8 Apr 2011.