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Veterans Day highlights new efforts to help homeless vets

As the nation pauses for Veterans Day, the Obama administration is trying to accelerate support for military veterans who are homeless or jobless.

An estimated 131,000 former members of the armed services are homeless - with vets twice as likely as non-vets to be out on the streets. With high unemployment a nationwide problem, vets face higher-than-average jobless rates as well.

New initiatives by President Obama, by Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki, and by members of Congress focus on improving living standards for veterans:

  • On Nov. 3, Sec. Shinseki (a retired Army general wounded in Vietnam) convened a national summit aimed at ending homelessness among vets within five years. The plan expands efforts to help those who are homeless, but also to increase prevention efforts.
  • Several bills in Congress, discussed at a hearing Tuesday, aim to support Shinseki's goal.
  • Mr. Obama signed an executive order Monday establishing a new interagency Council on Veterans Employment to encourage federal hiring of former service members, "consistent with merit system principles and veterans' preferences prescribed by law." The council includes a new effort to track results among federal agencies.

All this comes as a recession has added to challenges that war veterans often face. Shinseki, known for publicly differing with the Bush administration as Army Chief of Staff on how many troops would be needed in Iraq, calls for more than half-way measures.

"This is not a summit on homeless Veterans - it's a summit to end homelessness among Veterans. That's our purpose," he said recently.

He acknowledged the difficulty of reaching that goal, but said an ambitious target is needed to achieve results.

Shinseki outlined a multipronged five-year plan that encompasses jobs, education, and efforts to treat depression and drug abuse. The effort includes a new national referral center to link veterans and their families to local social service providers.

Speaking in support of new initiatives on Tuesday, Steven Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness said the problem shouldn't be viewed as inevitable.

"We know a great deal about the pathways into homelessness," he said in testimony to Congress, and also about "the interventions and program models which are effective in offering reconnection to community, and stable housing."

Prevention efforts may be especially important for Americans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, experts say, because the likelihood of vets being homeless is greatest about seven years after they leave military service.

Bills under review in Congress include a range of measures, such as 60,000 new housing vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), targeted at the number of vets estimated to be chronically homeless due to problems such as mental illness. Other provisions would target new money toward community or faith-based groups to provide support for homeless vets. One bill focuses especially on support for vets who are single parents.

One of those single parents testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Lila Guy, who served in Iraq in 2006, returned to a broken marriage and a struggle to find a home for her three children.

"Anybody who has spent time on active duty and tried to integrate to civilian life will tell you, it is a different world," she said in her testimony.

Ms. Guy found help through a program administered jointly by HUD and the VA, and said she hoped to help other vets facing homelessness: "If I could be standing there guiding them to the help they need I would."

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