The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from cutting off services to homeless veterans who left the military with disciplinary discharges.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote the bill last summer after the VA began denying housing vouchers to homeless veterans who served in the military for short periods or who were given less than honorable discharges.
The VA had that policy on its books for years, but it had not implemented it until 2014. The VA suspended the policy after public outcry last year, but it could be reinstated.
Murray’s bill must clear the House and receive President Obama’s signature before it can become law.
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“My bill makes it clear that our country takes care of those who have served, and that we don’t allow bureaucracy to dictate who gets a roof over their head and who doesn’t,” Murray said on the Senate floor.
Two Pierce County nonprofits told Murray on a June visit to Tacoma that they faced decisions over whether to turn away clients during the period when the VA was cutting benefits to certain homeless veterans.
“That didn’t allow us to do our job and assist them,” Metropolitan Development Council operations director Troy Christensen told The News Tribune last summer.
About 50,000 veterans remain on the streets nationwide despite aggressive efforts in recent years by the VA to connect them with housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Troops who leave the military with disciplinary discharges face the highest risk of homelessness among the nation’s veteran population, according to the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.
In some cases, losing VA benefits is intended to be part of the punishment for criminal offenses in the military. Murray and others argue that those veterans should not be trapped in homelessness, particularly if they acted out because of stress or trauma they experienced while in uniform.
“I believe that even one veteran sleeping on the streets in the United States is one too many,” Murray said Thursday.