State should honor its responsibility to homeless veterans

By Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Wisconsin are fighting to restore federal cuts to programs that serve homeless veterans. And they’re right to do so: The feds have eliminated funding for a program that provides housing at King and Union Grove, leaving 49 veterans out in the cold come January.

But lawmakers need to do more than just express their dismay. As four Democrats wrote in a letter to leaders of the Joint Finance Committee this week, legislators need to reopen the state budget for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and provide at the very least bridge funding until the federal funding is restored.

As David Kurtz of the Wisconsin American Legion told me Wednesday, “The state has a responsibility to serve these veterans” and make sure they get the services they deserve after having served their country.

The cuts to the programs, which have been in place since the 1990s and cost the feds about $935,000 a year, came as a shock to lawmakers and state officials. In response, 81 of Wisconsin's 132 state lawmakers on Friday sent a letter to the director of the federal homeless program expressing their disappointment over the cuts and asking that the funding be restored.

“For some homeless veterans in our state, especially those in more northern and rural areas, there is simply an absence of necessary resources available to assist these individuals," lawmakers wrote to Jeffrey Quarles of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Their letter was sent a day after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) sent their own letter to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin asking why the program was cut.

Good questions. But Kurtz is more interested in what the state is going to do about the cuts. “It’s not enough to just punt to the feds.”

The four Dems who sent the letter to the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee agree: “We believe that homeless veterans deserve a commitment from the state to do everything possible to ensure their success,” said the letter from state Sens. Lena Taylor and Jon Erpenbach and Reps. Gordon Hintz and Katrina Shankland.

Veterans do deserve that kind of commitment. It’s not enough to hope – as the state seems to be doing – that charitable agencies will step up and meet the need. These veterans served their country and Wisconsin. Even if their country leaves them out in the cold, Wisconsin should never do so.