Coming home

November 15, 2007

Arecent report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that while veterans constitute about 11 percent of the civilian population 18 and older, they represent about 26 percent of homeless people. That proportion is lower than in the 1990s, when veterans were an estimated one-third of the homeless population, but the findings are disturbing nonetheless.

Veterans are more likely to be educated and employed and less likely to be poor than the general population. As more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem of homeless veterans is likely to get worse. Although Congress is changing its recent miserly ways and is set to pass an appropriations bill that would provide more affordable housing and support services for veterans, President Bush is threatening a veto. He should reconsider.

The National Alliance found that there are nearly 196,000 homeless veterans across the country on any given night - including 3,300 in Maryland - and about 495,400 who experience homelessness during the year. They become homeless for many of the same reasons that non-veterans do. The report estimated that nearly half a million veterans were "severely rent burdened," paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing.

About 50 percent of homeless veterans need mental health services, and 75 percent need substance abuse programs, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. As a first step, what most homeless veterans need is emergency or transitional housing that will keep them stable long enough to start receiving appropriate services. After that, they need more affordable permanent housing. The Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, based in Baltimore, has become a national VA model and provides such services daily to about 250 veterans who come from many states.

But for the past several years, Congress has neglected to add funding to a joint program that puts veterans in affordable dwellings through vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and gives them supportive services through VA.

This affront to troubled returning servicemen and women needs to be corrected. The House has now agreed to designate $75 million for the voucher program next year, and the Senate would do well to follow suit. That could help about 7,500 homeless veterans secure permanent homes and make it easier for them to receive additional services.

Although still short of the need, it would be an important step in the right direction. Mr. Bush must not deny help to veterans who desperately need it.

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