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An end to jobless vets? New VA job program raises hopes

A new program launched by the US Department of Veteran Affairs aims to connect unemployed veterans with steady jobs. 

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    Veteran Marine David Bowles, 56, a beneficiary of the new Veterans Assistance Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services program, is photographed Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Cincinnati.
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The US Department of Veteran Affairs has launched a new program which offers individualized assistance to the roughly 50,000 unemployed veterans living on the street.

Through the Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services program, more than 150 community employment coordinators (CECs) will help veterans at VA locations across the country by identifying those who are job-ready and establishing relationships with community employers who may be able to find them jobs. The coordinators will also connect veterans with resources to help them succeed in their jobs once they find employment. 

CECs have been hired at approximately 120 medical centers nationwide, and it's expected that all VA Medical centers will have access to CECs within the next year.

The US has made significant progress in reducing homelessness among veterans since President Barack Obama pledged to eliminate the problem in 2009. In the past five years, the number of veterans living on the streets has been reduced by 33%, and several cities, including Phoenix and Salt Lake City, have completely eliminated homelessness among veterans by giving them places to live. First Lady Michelle Obama says she expects to eradicate the problem completely by the end of 2015 with the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness program. 

This Housing First approach, which operates under the idea that it's important to provide the homeless with a roof over their heads before tackling other issues such as addiction or mental illness, has proven effective thus far in getting veterans off the streets, and seems to make economic sense as well. A 2009 analysis commissioned by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which handles the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, found that the monthly cost of housing and supportive services for one person was $605, while the public cost of caring for a person living on the streets was roughly $2,900 a month. 

Once they have been provided with a roof over their heads, it's important for employable veterans to start looking for work, says Dennis Culhane, who directs the VA's National Center on Homelessness. A steady job, the Department of Veteran Affairs website explains, can give at-risk veterans "an improved quality of life, increased self-confidence and independence, a decreased reliance on institutional care, improved community integration, and opportunities for socialization." 

"A lot of these younger veterans in particular are employable," Culhane told NPR. "There's a definite emphasis on trying to get people back into the workforce, not stuck in the quote-unquote 'homeless system.'" 

At the National Alliance to End Homelessness Annual Conference in July 2014, Michelle Obama spoke about ending veteran homelessness, calling it "a stain on the soul of our nation." 

Mrs. Obama and others say that they are optimistic that the end of veteran homelessness is right around the corner. Mrs. Obama says she believes that the models that have been successful in housing veterans so far could also be effective with other homeless populations. 

“We do think we can get to the point where we can say there are no more homeless veterans in the country,” Laura Zeilinger, deputy director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness, told The New York Times. “And if we do this for veterans, it’s something that as a nation, if we set our mind to, we can achieve for other populations as well.”

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