The Trump administration has abruptly canceled plans to shift dedicated funding away from a program helping the most vulnerable homeless veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced late Wednesday that it would not remove about $460 million in funding from the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. Known as HUD-VASH, it is a partnership between the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides housing and counseling for chronically homeless veterans with disabilities including mental disease and addiction.
"There will be absolutely no change in the funding to support our homeless programs," Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said.
The statement capped nearly a week of complaints from veterans advocates who learned about the change on a three-hour conference call last Friday and immediately voiced their concerns.
"Not a single person spoke in support of VA's action in any way, shape or form," said Elisha Harig-Blaine of the National League of Cities, who serves on an advisory board at the agency.
Even a top official at HUD who spoke on the call "vocalized his strong concern" with the shift, Harig-Blaine said. The HUD official said his department had not not consulted prior to the VA decision.
"The VA's central office made this decision and they talked to nobody," said Mark Walker, a deputy director of the American Legion who is an expert on veteran homelessness policy. "Everyone is left saying, 'Can we get some clarification?' "
The announcement sent advocates searching for a way to change the policy. Letters were written, calls were placed and eventually they approached reporters with their concerns.
Shortly after news outlets, including Politico and The Washington Post, reported the change, the administration reversed course and issued a short statement from HUD, which promised "we will not be shifting any homeless program money" and a six-month period of public input "on how best to target our funding."
The decision to shift funding from the HUD-VASH program to a general fund at the discretion of local VA officials was especially surprising because the program is widely respected. It "has been a game changer" as veteran homelessness has dropped in recent years, said Walker.
Shulkin himself applauded the program just days before the conference call when he and HUD Secretary Ben Carson visited a HUD-VASH facility in Washington. He noted the success of the facility, which houses 60 previously homeless veterans, while recognizing that there is more work to be done, citing the 409 veterans on the facility's waiting list.
"I can tell you we are extraordinarily proud of what has been put together here to serve our veterans and serve the broader homeless community," Carson said.
Then, when a government report on homelessness was released Wednesday, Shulkin said it showed the "joint community-based homelessness efforts are working in most communities across the country." The report showed more than 40,000 veterans nationwide are homeless, a slight uptick over 2016 numbers largely due to a spike in the Los Angeles area, where the cost of housing has skyrocketed.
A VA spokesman declined requests from CNN to explain what had led Shulkin and the VA to change positions on the HUD-VASH funding.
The decision means that VA's portion of the program will continue. It provides the counseling services, which advocates say is essential for the veterans to stay in the HUD-funded housing.
"You've seen the program working. You've seen the decrease in homelessness," said Walker of the American Legion. "Let's keep the foot on the pedal, keep these programs moving."