The proposal by Rep. Mike Levin, D-California, would authorize the VA "to set up temporary encampments on the grounds of [VA Medical Centers] to allow homeless veterans to stay temporarily in VA parking lots," according to a release Tuesday from the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Although the tent city plan may seem far-fetched, it has precedent. Last month, the VA's Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System set up temporary pup tents for homeless veterans at the West Los Angeles VAMC at the urging of veterans advocates and local city and county officials.
The proposal by Levin, head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee subcommittee on economic opportunity, was included in legislation offered up by Rep. Mark Takano, the committee chairman, to aid veterans during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Takano's proposals were part of a massive $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill shaped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, that is expected to be voted on as early as Friday.
Pelosi, who has a track record of never sending a bill to the floor for which she doesn't have the votes, said Tuesday, "We must think big for the people now, because if we don't it will cost more in lives and livelihood later."
She told reporters in the Capitol, "We're presenting a plan to do what is necessary to deal with a chronic crisis and make sure we can get the country back to work and school safely."
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act, includes nearly $1 trillion in assistance to state and local governments, hazardous pay for VA and other health care workers, forgiveness of student debt and funding to shore up Medicaid and Medicare.
The more than 1,800-page bill also included a second round of $1,200 direct cash aid to individuals, increased to up to $6,000 per household, and would create a $175 billion housing assistance fund to help pay rents and mortgages.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said there is no urgency in the Senate to move on the House bill. At a livestream event Tuesday, he said it is time to "hit pause" on new coronavirus relief proposals.
Takano's package of proposals would approve VA health care for all veterans who lost their health insurance due to the pandemic and give prior VA authorization for any emergency care sought by veterans at non-VA hospitals.
In addition, veterans would not have any copays or cost-sharing for preventative treatment or services related to COVID-19.
"The HEROES Act is critical," Takano said in a statement. "By supporting homeless veterans, suspending debt collection, expanding health coverage, and caring for our most vulnerable, we can help ensure that those who have served our country have an opportunity to succeed."
The pup tents at the West Los Angeles VA were the latest attempt by the facility to ease the plight of homeless veterans in California.
Last May, the nonprofit Safe Parking L.A. partnered with the VA to offer homeless veterans living out of their vehicles parking stalls on the West Los Angeles VA's campus for overnight stays and a place to wash up.
In an address last May to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie recalled a visit to the West Los Angeles VA and "the saddest sight I have seen."
"I watched at dusk cars come into that wonderful, wonderful facility, and veterans did not get out of the cars," he said. "I was told that they all had jobs. They were contributing to the tax base and the prosperity of America's second largest city, but because of government policy there was no place for them to afford a decent living."
At a virtual House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on homeless veterans last month, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the ranking member of the committee, framed the problem for homeless veterans during the stay-at-home restrictions of the pandemic with a question: "How do you stay at home if you don't have a home?"
In her testimony at the April 28 hearing, Kathryn Monet, executive director of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, praised the outreach by the VA and the work to get homeless veterans into rentals through vouchers from the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, but said the problem has only worsened during the pandemic.
She called on Congress to provide more assistance to advocacy groups and community providers to get more homeless veterans off the streets and into shelters.
The pandemic "has truly created financial strain for these organizations on the front lines of this fight," Monet said.
"Given the infection rates at congregate housing across the country, any further delay is putting homeless service providers in the impossible position of making life-or-death decisions based on insufficient resources," she added.
At the hearing, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, pointed to the work of the nonprofit Veterans Leadership Program in the Pittsburgh area in getting homeless veterans into shelters and rentals.
In a phone interview, Christine Pietryga, VLP's chief operating officer, said the organization is working with $1 million in assistance from the VA to get homeless veterans, and those who have been "couch surfing" after losing jobs, into shelters and vacant hotel rooms.
One problem is that some of the veterans worry about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 from the lack of social distancing at shelters, she said.
"The VA has done a really good job" at addressing the homeless veterans issue through HUD-VASH and other programs, said Joy Ilem, deputy national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans. But "we're likely to see more veterans become homeless in the months ahead" as unemployment spikes in the epidemic, she added.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Ilem, a former Army medic, said the DAV is also concerned with veterans' mental health issues in the coronavirus era.
Last week, the VA announced an expansion of services through the $17.2 billion in funding to the Veterans Health Administration under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
About $300 million from the $17.2 billion will go "to address the challenges faced by homeless and at-risk veterans," the VA said in a release.
The total includes $202 million for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program aimed at low-income veteran families "to mitigate the expected wave of evictions and potential homelessness that will result from extensive unemployment," the VA said.
Since 2010, the effort, begun under then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to end veteran homelessness, has resulted in about a 50% reduction in the number of homeless veterans, currently estimated at about 40,000, according to the VA and HUD.
As a result, 77 communities and three states nationwide have declared an effective end to veteran homelessness, HunterKurtz, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at HUD, said at an Aug. 22 field hearing in San Diego of the House Veterans Affairs Committee's subcommittee on economic opportunity.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.