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Opinion: Help for homeless veterans

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Minnesota native Leroy Namen joined the U.S. Navy in 1979 and was stationed in the Philippines. When Leroy returned home he started to drink heavily and ended up homeless for the next 15 years.

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Leroy eventually got the help he needed with treatment for alcoholism, housing, job training and support from the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV).

Leroy's story of struggle is not a rare one. Nearly one in seven homeless adults in America is a veteran, a rate much higher than their share of the total adult population. On any given night, it's estimated that some 67,000 veterans are homeless in America. Although this number has actually declined significantly in recent years, it's still 67,000 too many.

There are many reasons why a veteran ends up homeless. It might be alcoholism or drug abuse. It might be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or mental illness. It might be unemployment or the lack of job skills. It might be a family break-up or the absence of a supportive family to fall back on. No matter what the reason is, it's not right that tens of thousands of men and women who've served our country are homeless.

New federal legislation signed into law this summer will help make a difference. Passed with strong bipartisan support, the Honoring American Veterans Act provides a wide-ranging package of benefits to veterans.

The legislation includes a provision I introduced that will cut government red tape so homeless veterans, especially in rural areas, have access to the help they need. It's not about more money. It's about more effectiveness.

This bipartisan legislation will strengthen an existing federal program that provides chronically homeless veterans with housing vouchers and case management services such as counseling and job training. It's called the "Housing and Urban Development and Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing" program (known as HUD-VASH).

It's a good program. But it can be even better.

The problem is that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has had difficulty reaching many homeless veterans who don't live near a VA Medical Center like those in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Fargo.

Veterans groups told me that it would be more effective if the VA could form partnerships with community-based groups to provide these case management services so they would reach underserved veterans around the state.

Specifically, the legislation cuts red tape by authorizing and encouraging the VA to join with state and local governments, tribes and community-based service providers to administer case-management services, ensuring that homeless veterans have access to the housing care they need right in the communities where they live.

Community-based providers are often in a better position than the VA to effectively deliver these services to homeless veterans.

This help will be here not just for the veterans of today, but also for the veterans of tomorrow.

During the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has created a whole new generation of war veterans. Already, there are 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans.

Most of these service men and women will make the transition to civilian life with few problems. But we also know that some will run into difficulties that could lead to homelessness.

In many instances, it can take years before the problems become overwhelming. One study found that after the Vietnam War, 76 percent of Vietnam-era combat troops and 50 percent of non-combat troops who eventually became homeless reported that at least 10 years passed between the time they left military service and when they became homeless.

That means there is still time to take action before a veteran ends up homeless.

When we ask our men and women to fight and sacrifice for us in defense of our nation, we make a promise that we will give them the support they need when they come home. This legislation offers one way to fulfill that promise for our most vulnerable veterans, those who are homeless.

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