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Homeless vets' aid vowed


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POSTED: Saturday, August 22, 2009

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is going to take 131,000 homeless veterans off the nation's street in five years, vows Kauai-born Eric “;Ric”; Shinseki, the Vietnam War veteran who is the agency's new leader.

Shinseki said the VA will spend $3.2 billion next year on homelessness, 85 percent of which will go toward improving mental health and treating substance abuse. Much of the remaining money will be spent on housing programs.

The Kauai High School and West Point graduate, who led the Army as its chief of staff from 1999 to 2003, said, “;I know that there are no absolutes in life — but I also know that if I don't put a big number on the table, we won't be working this hard enough.”;

In a speech during a session on the military at yesterday's statehood celebration conference, Shinseki, who served in the Army for 38 years, added: “;You see, to get to zero, we have to attack the entire cycle of downward spirals that end in homelessness — the last step in the loss of hope.

“;We can't solve it, at the state or national levels, unless we attack jobs and education, health care and substance abuse, depression and suicides and housing.”;

Shinseki said he wants “;the VA to be the provider of choice for veterans in insurance, in health care, in education, in home loans, in counseling and in employment.”;

He assumed the head of VA, which serves 23.4 million veterans, seven months ago.

Shinseki and Hawaii's U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, spent Thursday meeting with veterans on Kauai and the Big Island, touring the clinics on both islands. There are 118,000 veterans living in the islands, and the VA spent $384 million here last year.

Shinseki said Akaka and his colleagues have consistently appropriated more than what the administration has asked since 2008. He noted that the current VA budget of $112.8 billion for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins in October, is 15 percent more than what was approved by Congress last year.

“;That was the largest increase in 30 years,”; said Shinseki, who tries to retain his close ties in the islands and his home island of Kauai.

Akaka said his committee approved bills this year designed to break down health care barriers for veterans living in rural areas like Molokai, who have to fly to Maui or Oahu for treatment, by allowing them to seek reimbursement for airfare from the VA.

He said his Senate committee also approved the establishment of a program to train, support and assist caregivers of disabled veterans.

Akaka, who visits Lanai on Monday, will walk through the Lanai City Straub facility, which was recently contracted by the VA to allow a VA health care practitioner to use its facilities to treat eligible veterans. He also will meet with veterans at the Lanai Senior Center.

Regarding Kauai, Shinseki said the outpatient clinic in Lihue — one of five in the state — is “;a little bit cramped, and they are looking for more space.”;

Some veterans would like it to be built on county land at the Kauai Veterans Center to create a comprehensive, one-stop veterans center, but the County Council is opposed to selling the land to the VA.

He said the outpatient center in Hilo is located across the street from the newly accredited, 95-bed Hawaii Otsuka State Veterans Home — a skilled home nursing care facility.

During his speech and meeting with reporters, Shinseki said that up to 150,000 young veterans will enroll in college this fall under a new GI bill, the most significant educational benefits package for veterans since the GI Bill of 1944. The new bill allows veterans to attend private universities and colleges under a VA stipend. “;It's lightning striking twice.”;