Budget ax looms over veterans housing program

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Sam Morris

Veteran Marcus Lyman says, “The best thing about having the housing is you have a base. If I lose my housing, it will be me and my service dog, on the street, homeless again.”

Fri, Mar 25, 2011 (2:01 a.m.)

Veterans Stand Down

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KSNV coverage of Las Vegas Veterans Stand Down, March 24, 2011.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Bob Lot, a Vietnam veteran who lives on just a few dollars a day, is waiting for a home.

Lot is one of many Las Vegas veterans who has counted himself among the city’s homeless. The 57-year-old cancer survivor has never been well off, but was doing OK until he lost his job as a waiter five years ago. Then he lost his RV.

Faced with living on the street, Lot ended up at the doorstep of the U.S. Veterans program, where he spends nights in a multioccupancy dormitory for which he pays the bulk of his veteran’s benefit — $340 of the $500 he receives — every month.

Lot says he’s tried to get a job, even offering to pump gas and selling his blood to make a little cash. But at his age and in his condition, real jobs just haven’t been in the offing.

For the past 13 months though, Lot has been pinning his hopes on a waiting list for a federal program he hopes can get him into a more stable home — and from there, back on his feet.

“If I can get the voucher, I can have a little more money to spend each month,” he said.

The program he’s been counting on is a creation of the Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs departments from 1992 known as HUD-VASH. The program offers 20,000 veterans a year housing at a subsidized cost equal to 30 percent of their income.

It has become such a mainstay that since 2008, Congress has apportioned an extra

$75 million a year to pay for an additional 10,000 vouchers, to get veterans like Lot under the umbrella of the program.

But this year, the extra pot of vouchers is one Congress may end up scaling back as lawmakers strip cash from the federal budget to chip away at the country’s mounting debt.

It’s one of many programs that might be on the chopping block, but one that’s causing special consternation in Las Vegas, where the veterans population is higher than average, and the count of homeless in their ranks is growing.

“In our area, this program is huge: Over 600 veterans have been helped ... if there’s one name on that list, it’s too long,” said Larry Williams, who manages homeless programs for the U.S. Veterans office in Las Vegas. “One out of every five homeless here are veterans ... how do you expect to help them with their issues, how do you expect them to get a job, if they have no residence? If you take away the HUD vouchers, they send you back to square one.”

Those questions are being echoed by Democrats all the way up the political food chain in Washington. They are pointing an accusing finger at Republicans for even making the suggestion.

“Taking a meat ax to an initiative that keeps Nevada veterans off the street is not just reckless, it’s immoral,” Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said. “The Republicans’ proposal is too extreme, attempting to balance the budget on the backs of our men and women in uniform.”

The Democrats’ vitriol refers to House Resolution 1, which passed the House but was voted down by the Senate this month. Although dead, it still is the most concrete proposal on the fiscal 2011 budget that’s been publicly unveiled.

But there a complication. Although Democrats are accusing Republicans of pushing a political agenda through on the backs of the country’s unluckiest vets, Republicans are accusing them of using those veterans as pawns to fight the cuts at hand.

“There’s a cut at HUD. So what’s the most politically correct program HUD does? Veterans,” one congressional Republican aide said. “They picked the veterans because it sounds the worst. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to do that.”

The tricky part in all of this comes because the pots of money being targeted for cuts aren’t necessarily referred to specifically under the bill. The dollars fall under discretionary funding, meaning although Congress indicated its intention for how the extra dollars for veterans housing were to be spent, it’s up to the department to execute their directions. Simply put, it’s not as explicit as Democrats suggest.

That Republicans are focusing their cuts solely on discretionary funding has been a complaint by Reid and others.

At times, it’s left a lot of room for interpretation that Republicans have questioned, such as Reid’s accusation that $133 million in cuts to the FBI will strap the bureau’s hate crime investigations specifically — a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, but not a cut that Reid could guarantee would take place.

That said, nonpartisan budget experts seem to solidly be of the opinion that Democrats’ read of the cuts to housing vouchers would gut the program.

“Funding to provide new housing vouchers to 10,000 homeless veterans would be eliminated,” wrote Douglas Rice, a senior analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, in his analysis of the changes that the Republicans’ proposal, HR1, would bring to low-income housing.

Although there’s still a ways to go — the new budget deadline is April 8, but with Congress in recess for the past week, not much progress has been made — veterans servicers in Las Vegas are bracing for bad news.

“If they cut the program off, you’re going to have a lot of veterans out there with no hope, lingering from one soup kitchen to the other,” Williams said. “And our job (to find them) will become exponentially more demanding.”

“Your family can’t come visit you when you’re living on a sidewalk,” said Marcus Lyman, a 63-year-old Vietnam vet who was on the streets for 20 years before receiving his HUD-VASH voucher, battling mental illness, and drug and alcohol addictions.

“The best thing about having the housing is you have a base,” he said. “If I lose my housing, it will be my and my service dog, on the street, homeless again.”

Contributing from Las Vegas was special correspondent Kim Palchikoff.

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