DOWNTOWN — Dr. Tommy Sowers is a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer and was the 2010 Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Missouri’s 8th congressional district before being sworn in on Aug. 20, 2012 as assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
President Barack Obama tapped the Bronze Star recipient to oversee programs involving intergovernmental relations, including homeless veterans. Sowers, who has a Ph.D. in government from the London School of Economics, was in Los Angeles Wednesday to tour the West Los Angeles V.A. and to speak directly with homeless service providers. He even found time to connect with a homeless veteran on the Third Street Promenade.
Following that encounter, Sowers, 36, spoke with the Santa Monica Daily Press about his mission and the president’s ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness in the next five years.
DP: What brings you to Los Angeles?
TS: L.A. is ground zero for veteran homelessness so I’m here meeting with the VA and community partners and leaders because we’ve got to solve this. We went to the Westside Veterans Community Center, which is an innovative program that uses a number of federal programs out there like the grant per diem and housing vouchers program, to get a chance to see that and talk with folks there.
DP: What did you learn?
TS: Talking with the (Assertive Community Treatment) team, which is a special forces team of psychiatrists, social workers, veteran peer counselors and nurse practitioners who go out into the field and talk to homeless vets, about 90 percent of homeless vets have some sort of substance abuse and highly correlated to that is some type of mental illness needing treatment. That seemed to be the case of those vets we spoke with. A huge part of this is just getting their trust. We have incredible services at the West L.A. VA, but you can’t force somebody to go in there.
DP: How can we make sure that this new generation of veterans like yourself do not become homeless once they return from the battlefield?
TS: I’ll speak personally. The VA, if someone has served honorably, the VA is here to make them stronger in all phases of life. I benefited from the post 9/11 GI Bill. It’s Dr. Sowers because of that. You can use it to get a Ph.D. or a trade certificate, providing people the skills and the education they need so they don’t fall into homelessness. The VA has jobs programs, programs for financial health and a lot of training on specific skills needed in the work force. The VA home loan program has been a huge asset for a lot of veterans, helping to lower the number of defaults. It allows us to intervene early to make sure veterans stay in their homes rather than being thrown out. So I think my clear take-away from today … is you need a lot of tools in the tool box to tackle this issue.
DP: One of those tools is transitional, supportive housing for those with mental health or drug and alcohol issues. The VA is being sued by the ACLU for allegedly failing to provide the housing and services vets need. What’s the progress on rehabbing Building 209 on the VA campus to house and treat homeless vets? It has been several years and it seems like nothing is happening.
TS: A construction contract was awarded (Tuesday) and they are planning to have (Building 209) completed in early spring. This is a facility that is going to be beautiful and have very integrated therapy and support services and serve as a transitional residence. But it’s 55 beds. … This is only part of a broad campaign to ending veteran homelessness.
DP: You said it’s just 55 beds. By that do you mean there needs to be more?
TS: At the Westside Community Center there are 500 beds. There are thousands of vouchers through HUD so people can live in communities and not be sequestered in a specific VA facility. There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot of various approaches out there to look at.
DP: Should the VA be building more housing?
TS: I think what I can say on that is the VA has been after this very hard for the last couple of years, but in order to get to zero in 2015 we’ll need a multi-faceted approach, and that includes our community partners. There is a lot of goodwill in L.A. to end veteran homelessness. There might be a disagreement on tactics and timing. I want to figure out how we can all work together and accomplish this major goal.
DP: What’s it like to go from being a foot soldier to being nominated to a post by the president?
TS: It’s an incredible honor that the president nominated me and the Senate confirmed me. I’m the youngest assistant secretary in the VA and in the nation. I think what that means is it’s an opportunity for me to truly represent the concerns of, in particular, my generation of vets and I think it gives a lot of credit to [Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki] and the president that they wanted that voice on the highest levels of counsel.
DP: So what needs to happen when this generation of vets comes home?
TS: A ton of it is just education, frankly. I am responsible for that. There are bout 22.4 million vets and about 8.9 million use one of our services. We have to do better. A lot of veterans don’t know they are vets or they feel they don’t deserve the benefits. There are a lot of reasons out there for it. I want to make sure that as they transition they know what they are eligible for. The secretaries of defense of the VA [have] committed to creating a closer partnership. Secretary Shinseki says that no veteran who fought for their country should have to fight for a roof over their head.”
DP: What are you going to report back to your boss when you fly home tonight?
TS: I’m going to report back that there are some great models out here. It’s a very complicated problem and that there’s a great opportunity to partner with the community, civic and nonprofit leaders to collectively solve it.