Fruit of the Poisoned Tree

There is still a belief that the number of homeless vets is exploding in the country. Tune into just about any newscast and you will hear a story about the former military downtrodden. The numbers are shocking — and misleading.

There might, in fact, be a decline in the veteran homeless population. In 2005, the VA estimated the number of homeless veterans to be 194,254 of the 744,313 homeless nationwide. Today VA officials place that count at 131,000.

But where do these figures come from?

VA officials have said they rely on estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The VA also has confirmed it uses evening bed counts from a hodgepodge of shelters and other places of homeless refuge around the country. If a guest tells a shelter he or she is a vet, then he (or she) counts as a veteran. Done. Add those up and you get the number of homeless vets in America.

The National Coalition for the Homeless pegs the VA’s current number at 154,000 and says there is “an estimated 300,000 veterans homeless at some time during the year.” It is said the VA only reaches one-third (or 100,000), leaving the remaining 200,000 to seek help from the communities. (Huh?)

We’ll go out on a limb again: it seems safe to say no one knows the homeless veteran population in this country, and that might be OK — except for the taxpayer funds devoted to homeless vets.

The current budget for VA homeless veterans programs is $400 million and officials expect that to increase to more than $500 million next year. Anyone who says “I’m a vet!” receives basic outreach and referral services. Beyond that, the VA says recipients must be bonafide vets. It is the VA that establishes eligibility for services.

A VA spokesman reminded us that President George W. Bush mandated cities develop 10-year plans to end homelessness. The VA says it has a responsibility to do its part, and thus funds beds for veterans in the shelters and sponsors “stand downs” to get clothing and medical attention to this population.

Assets dedicated to help unconfirmed veterans might play well with some groups, but potentially steers limited assets from known veterans seeking VA assistance. It happens every day.

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