By Bryant Jordan
A panel of the U.S. House of Representatives will be taking testimony today on a bill mandating that veterans' homeless shelters meet building safety and fire codes.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., in May sponsored the bill with Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., after seeing "with my own eyes" some of the unsafe conditions of shelters that receive a per diem fee from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Unfortunately there is no law mandating homeless shelters that receive funding from the VA to meet code," said McKinley, who as a licensed engineer called it "an an egregious omission" to exempt the shelters from local, state and federal safety codes.
The legislation is expected to be taken up today by the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health.
Under the VA program, a shelter can get up to $42 per day per housed veteran, according to the agency's website. The payments are part of the VA's Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, aimed at helping homeless veterans or those at-risk of homelessness.
In addition to the shelter per diem, organizations can also apply for grants to provide case management, education, crisis intervention and counseling, as well as services for specialized populations, including women vets.
Mark Walker, deputy director for The American Legion's National Economic Division, said the problem is a national one and not limited to West Virginia.
"There are issues when we talk about housing together veterans who are at risk," he said. The VA program requires that the facilities be affordable and safe, "but there is an issue with the safety part of it."
In addition to the VFW, the bill also has the backing of the Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Homeless Veterans Coalition, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the International Code Council and the Fire Marshals' Association, according to McKinley.
Alex Nicholson, legislative director for IAVA, is expected to submit testimony for the record to the House panel. About a quarter of homeless people in America are veterans.
"IAVA supports this bill because it aims to increase accountability for organizations entrusted with providing services to America's homeless veterans, ensuring that these individuals are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," Nicholson says.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and has maintained -- against the skepticism of members of Congress -- that the VA is still on track to do that.
In December, the VA reported that the number of homeless vets had dropped 7 percent from January 2011 to January 2012, when there were about 62,600 homeless vets on a single night's count, according to the findings of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.