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Senate bill aims to help VA meet its bold goal of ending vet homelessness by 2015

An audacious vow by the Obama Administration to eliminate veteran homelessness in two years — an initiative that's shown progress but is off pace to fully succeed — got a shot in the arm Thursday when leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs proposed legislation to help plug lingering holes in the existing veteran safety net. 

A central theme of the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013 is to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to shift its transitional-housing system for street-bound ex-service members into a process that's more focused on giving veterans easier access to permanent, stable housing.

While transitional housing units can give quick shelter to veterans — and, indeed, lower the population of homeless veterans — many of those same men and women often cannot find affordable, long-term housing such as leased apartments. Some ultimately wind up sleeping again under bridges or in cars, say veterans advocates. 

To help end that cycle, the bill would "provide incentives" to the VA "to avoid disruptions that arise when veterans complete transitional housing programs and move on to permanent housing," according to a news release on the legislation. 

The proposed law is sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Richard Burr, R-N.C. — the chairman and ranking member of the Senate veterans’ panel. Staff members at that committee were unable to say Thursday if the bill would require extra funding, although most of the programs slated to be enhanced already are paid for through federal budgets. 

“We must continue to invest in the progress that has been made and remove any remaining barriers to housing for veterans,” Sanders said.

Since VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged in 2009 to pull every veteran off the streets by 2015, that aggressive push has slashed veteran homelessness by 17 percent. But the most recent head count conducted by federal authorities (in January 2012) found more than 62,000 veterans remain homeless, casting doubt as to whether the VA can meet its ambitious deadline.  

Other key pieces of the act include: 

  • Keeping veteran families together by allowing the VA to house the children of homeless veterans in transitional housing environments. (Currently, families are often split up when veterans enter such facilities). 
  • Allowing the VA to partner with public and private entities to bolster the availability of legal services for homeless veterans. 
  • Requiring transitional housing providers to specifically meet needs of homeless women veterans.

In an emailed statement, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said the agency "appreciates" the renewed backing from Sanders and Burr. 

"While we have made significant progress, there is more work to do," Taylor said. "With the continued support of our partners in Congress, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the hundreds of community organizations across the country, we will end homelessness among veterans and provide them with the benefits they have earned and deserve."