State lawmakers are asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider its decision to halt funding for two homeless veterans programs in Wisconsin.
Last week, the VA declined to renew $930,000 in grants for two residential program for homeless veterans located at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King and Veterans Home at Union Grove. The agency gave conditional approval to the homeless program at the Chippewa Falls home, but that is not finalized.
Eighty-one Democratic and Republican Senate and Assembly members signed a letter to the VA Friday asking the agency to reconsider its funding decision.
"Homeless veterans in our state will undoubtedly suffer without this vital funding which they have relied on at the Veterans Home at Union Grove since 1997 and since 1995 at the Veterans Home at King," the lawmakers wrote. "For some homeless veterans in our state, especially those in more northern or rural areas there is simply an absence of necessary outcomes available to assist these individuals. Without the funding for these programs at King and Union Grove, there will be a lack of options for homeless veterans in Wisconsin."
Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman said last week he intended to close the homeless programs this fall without the federal funding, which would displace 47 people.
"It's just unfortunate. You wish you could continue. You know you’re doing good," Zimmerman said in an interview last week.
He said he will ensure those veterans are placed in a new program and will redirect state money used for the homeless program to bolster its general benefits program to connect veterans with housing and other services.
Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs said Friday that the agency will continue to try to connect veterans to services they need.
"We appreciate the support our Veterans Housing and Recovery program is receiving. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that the veterans have access to the job training, education, counseling and rehabilitative services they need to obtain steady employment, affordable housing and other necessary life skills," Vigue said in an email.
The state's homeless programs for veterans are operated by the Veterans Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit based in Tomah that has contracted with the state to run the programs for several years. The group has been criticized for its fundraising practices and federal officials kicked it out of the Tomah VA facility last year after a resident in the homeless program there was found dead in a dorm.
Democratic lawmakers on the state's budget committee are also aiming to save the homeless programs and said the Department of Veterans Affairs should use excess money generated by the King home to pay for the programs.
Four Democrats on the budget committee wrote a letter to Zimmerman Thursday asking him to request permission from the committee to use excess WDVA funds to pay for the homeless program and maintenance and repairs at the King home.
Democrats state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, signed the letter and said the ongoing budget impasse has delayed funds that they thought would have been available by now.
Shankland said in an interview Friday that the budget committee should re-vote on the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs budget.
"So much has changed since we voted on the WDVA budget," said Shankland, citing the decision to reduce the bed count at King, along with the loss of federal funding. "We're asking (Zimmerman) to request funds from us which we think the committee will approve."
Shankland said she is asking the Legislative Fiscal Bureau how much it would cost the state to shore up the homeless programs and said WDVA should consider prioritizing funding for them.
"I think it's a question of priorities," Shankland said.
Vigue said the agency has looked at how it could fund the programs, but has determined that expanding its other veterans benefit programs would help more people.