By MARK BRUNSWICK, Star Tribune
Last update: February 25, 2011 - 6:50 PM
A chance encounter with the director of one of the state's leading veteran advocacy groups has led U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to introduce legislation designed to help chronically homeless veterans.
And, get this: Even in today's polarizing Washington world, the bill has bipartisan support and requires no significant new funding.
During a recent conversation with Kathy Vitalis, executive director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, Klobuchar said she heard that many rural veterans who suffer from chronic homelessness have been unable to get access to services because they live too far away from Veterans Affairs facilities. It's a significant problem: Homelessness for veterans in Minnesota appears to be at an all-time high. A 2009 Wilder Research survey found that one in five homeless men in the state has served in the military and the number of homeless women vets has doubled from 2006 to 2009. Overall, the number of homeless vets increased 7 percent during the same period.
"It's kind of an absurd situation when you have a homeless veteran in Thief River Falls who's outside a service area for a VA medical clinic and they aren't able to access any of the services. Right now, they are just cut off," Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar's bill would strengthen an existing federal VA program that provides chronically homeless vets with housing vouchers and case-management services. Rather than require the vet to relocate to an area with a VA facility, the bill authorizes the VA to work with state and local governments, tribes and other community-based providers to make sure homeless vets get access to the services they need. There might be a small administrative cost, but the intent of the legislation is to break down barriers rather than create new programs. Nineteen veterans and social service organizations have signed on in support, as well as Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Cornyn of Texas.