By Rep. Mike Levin
As the grandson of a World War II veteran who flew over the Pacific, I am deeply grateful for the service of American men and women around the world who dedicated their lives to the same mission he had, keeping our country safe and free. From a very young age, I heard stories about my grandfather’s service and developed a keen understanding of what it meant to sacrifice for your country.
Since my grandfather and the Greatest Generation returned home following World War II, countless men and women have returned to a country that hasn’t always lived up to its responsibility to care for our veterans. Since becoming a Member of Congress, representing tens of thousands of veterans around Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and serving as Chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, I have made it one of my top priorities to change this.
We simply cannot allow so many of our veterans to fall into homelessness, end up jobless, or go without the basic rights and services that they deserve. Such challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a strain on shelters and other critical services. As our nation continues to combat this public health and economic crisis, it is imperative that we provide more relief for veterans and their families.
Most recently, I was proud to pass my bipartisan bill, the Dependable Employment and Living Improvements for Veterans’ Economic Recovery Act, in the House. The DELIVER Act is robust legislation that incorporates several bipartisan bills I introduced to strengthen and expand services for homeless and unemployed veterans.
The bill allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide more services for homeless veterans, creates a rapid retraining program for unemployed veterans, improves the Transition Assistance Program for servicemembers returning to civilian life, and much more.
The bill includes my legislation with another member of the San Diego delegation, Rep. Scott Peters, to expand eligibility for HUD-VA Supportive Housing vouchers. Despite the fact that 37,000 veterans were homeless as of January 2019, roughly 20% of the HUD-VASH vouchers have been going unused. To address this unacceptable situation, our legislation expands the program to include homeless veterans who were discharged under conditions other-than-honorable, but not dishonorable. This population disproportionately suffers from mental health challenges and requires more support. Regardless of a veteran’s status, no one who has sacrificed to serve our country should ever have to worry about having a place to live.
Another key cause for the backlog in HUD-VASH vouchers is the VA’s case management shortage. Case management staff are required to meet, assess, and assist the veteran with paperwork before issuing a voucher, but sixteen percent of case management positions nationwide were vacant as of July, delaying this process.
We need to swiftly knock down this barrier to housing, which is why I introduced the Reducing Veteran Homelessness Act with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, which is also included in the DELIVER Act. This legislation ensures homeless veterans and their families receive the resources they deserve by filling the gaps in HUD-VASH case management.
Another solution to veteran homelessness that we included is the Housing for Women Veterans Act, a bill I introduced with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. This legislation requires the VA to complete an analysis of its programs that provide assistance to women veterans who are homeless to identify the areas in which such programs are failing to meet their needs. Women veterans are the fastest growing homeless population in the United States. We must pay attention to their unique challenges and develop tailored solutions to meet them where they are.
The DELIVER Act also includes legislation I introduced with my friend Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida, the ranking member of my subcommittee, that allows the VA to use existing funds for a wider range of services to support veterans during the pandemic. This includes authorizing VA to provide basic necessities like food and clothing, loosening restrictions on grant and per diem payments, and requiring VA to ensure veterans participating in VA homeless programs have access to VA telehealth services.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to undermine our economy, the rate of veteran unemployment has risen to 6.4% as of August, compared to 3.5% a year prior. To get veterans back to work, the DELIVER Act also includes a bill I introduced with Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee to create a rapid retraining program for unemployed veterans and reservists to pursue training in high-demand occupations. It also includes the Bill Mulder Transition Improvement Act, a bill I introduced with Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas to make the transition process easier for servicemembers who are seeking new careers as they return to civilian life.
After positive conversations with my colleagues in the Senate, I am quite hopeful that the DELIVER Act and other legislation to support veterans will become law this year. While it is easy to conclude that much of Washington is broken, I’m proud of the bipartisan progress we’re making for our veterans. During my first term in Congress, I’ve introduced 20 bipartisan veterans bills. So far, 12 have passed the House and four have become law. I am hopeful that the DELIVER Act will be next to arrive on the President’s desk. This legislation will make a real difference for the veterans in our region and countless others across the country.
Rep. Mike Levin represents north coastal San Diego and south Orange counties in Congress.