Preventing Vet Homelessness and Suicide Top Biden’s State of the Union ‘Unity Agenda’

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington DC at night
The U.S. Capitol in Washington DC at night, on Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Joe Biden is calling on Congress to do more to prevent veteran homelessness and curtail suicide while improving mental health support for veterans.

Biden made the push on veterans issues as part of his annual State of the Union address, in which he urged Republicans and Democrats to work together to build on bipartisan successes of the last year but also sparred with Republicans over domestic policies.

“Let’s do more to keep our nation’s one truly sacred obligation: to equip those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they come home,” Biden told lawmakers Tuesday night.

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The focus on veterans marks the second time in as many State of the Union speeches Biden has elevated issues facing those who served in the military in a forum watched by millions of Americans.

In last year’s address, Biden called on Congress to help veterans suffering from illnesses caused by toxic substances they were exposed to during their military service. The push helped move legislation aimed at providing health care for more veterans, culminating in the bipartisan passage of the PACT Act, the biggest expansion of veterans benefits in a generation.

“We came together to pass one of the most significant laws ever, helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits,” Biden said Tuesday night to applause.

Biden returned to veterans issues Tuesday as part of his “unity agenda” that administration officials hope can get bipartisan support in Congress.

The Department of Veterans Affairs under the Biden administration has already placed an emphasis on ending veteran homelessness. Last year, the department set a goal of housing 38,000 homeless veterans and surpassed that target by about 2,400 veterans. The department has also touted that the number of veterans estimated to be living on the streets dropped about 11% from 2020 to 2022, though approximately 33,000 veterans are still estimated to be living on the streets on any given night and the methods used for counting those experiencing homelessness have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In his address, Biden said Congress should help “veterans afford their rent because no one should be homeless in this country, especially not those who served it,” eliciting one of the most bipartisan standing ovations from lawmakers of the night.

While Biden offered no specific proposals during the speech, White House officials told reporters earlier Tuesday that the president wants Congress to “pave the path to an entitlement to housing assistance” for veterans.

It’s unclear exactly how the Biden administration plans to increase access to housing assistance or whether the effort will differ from existing aid programs such as Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers. Asked for more details during the press call Tuesday morning, Terri Tanielian, special assistant to the president for veterans affairs, said more specific information would come when the administration releases its budget request in March.

The VA has also made progress on combating suicide in recent years. An average of 16.8 veterans a day died by suicide in 2020, the lowest level since 2006, according to the department’s most recent estimate. The number, however, still represents a much higher rate than experienced by the general public.

Despite the progress, the VA continues to grapple with major issues surrounding suicide, including evidence that those who suffer from one of the “signature wounds” of the post-9/11 wars, traumatic brain injury, are at greater risk of dying by suicide.

“The VA is doing everything it can, including expanding mental health screenings and a proven program that recruits veterans to help other veterans understand what they’re going through and get the help they need. We got to do more,” said Biden, who also incorrectly asserted in an ad-libbed line that 25 veterans a day were dying by suicide when he took office. The veterans suicide rate peaked in 2018 with an average of 18.6 deaths per day, according to VA statistics, although the incorrect number of 22 per day is often repeated by public officials.

Biden will tackle veteran suicide by providing more resources to states and territories to invest in community-based programs and will address veteran mental health more broadly by increasing access to peer support services, Christen Linke Young, deputy assistant to the president for health and veterans affairs, said on the press call.

He will also focus on increasing outreach to veterans in legal trouble, who are at a heightened risk of suicide, and providing more resources to increase lethal means safety counseling and safe storage of firearms, Linke Young said.

About 68% of veterans who died by suicide in 2020 used a firearm. While the White House included lethal means safety in Biden’s unity agenda, Republicans in the past have accused such efforts of being backdoor, partisan gun control measures.

While last year’s push on toxic exposure garnered bipartisan support, it is unclear whether Biden’s efforts on veterans this year will find the same success in a Congress where the House is now controlled by the opposing party. In particular, any proposals that require more funding could face hurdles in the GOP-controlled House, where party leadership has vowed to slash non-defense discretionary spending, which includes the VA budget.

The mentions of veterans in Biden’s speech got bipartisan applause, but the fragility of his relationship with congressional Republicans was on display as he got into a back-and-forth with members mid-speech over whether they want to cut Social Security and Medicare, including some Republicans standing up to shout “liar” at him. 

This year’s State of the Union also comes amid an intense public focus on U.S. competition with China after a Chinese balloon, alleged by U.S. officials to have been conducting intelligence gathering, traversed the continental United States and was shot down by the U.S. military once it was over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.

While Biden discussed U.S.-China competition -- including touting the importance of “modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression” -- the balloon itself only elicited a veiled reference.

“Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” he said. “And we did.”

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA Surpasses Goal for Housing Homeless Vets in 2022

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