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In welcome break from headlines, Phoenix gets praise for aid to vets

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WASHINGTON – It’s been a rough couple weeks for Phoenix as far as the news that has been coming out of the city about veterans.

But on Wednesday, the White House delivered a welcome bit of good news.

Phoenix was one of several cities highlighted at a White House ceremony by first lady Michelle Obama for their work to end chronic homelessness among veterans.

“It was really a reinforcement in many ways of what Phoenix has already done for ending chronic veteran homelessness,” said Jack Lunsford, special assistant to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who represented the city at the event.

The first lady announced that more than 80 local leaders, including Stanton and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, had committed to work toward ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

Phoenix announced in December that it had eradicated chronic veteran homelessness after a friendly competition with Salt Lake City, where Mayor Ralph Becker made a similar announcement in January.

“As you heard, Mayor Becker, as well as his counterpart in Phoenix, Mayor Greg Stanton, they’ve already effectively ended chronic homelessness among veterans in their states,” Obama said.

She appealed to the competitive spirit of other local leaders who had pledged to fight veteran homelessness.

“We’ve got to get more people. I know how competitive our mayors can be,” she said.

“That’s why I’m very excited, because you all … guys like to beat each other and challenge each other,” Obama said. “We saw it in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.”

Besides praising the local leaders, the White House event included discussions about how best to end veteran homelessness.

“Multiple people in the panel discussions that followed acknowledged the success of the city of Phoenix,” Lunsford said. “So it was really good all the way around, and I was happy to be able to represent Mayor Stanton.”

Chronic homeless veterans are those who have been homeless for a year or more without intervention.

Phoenix’s efforts were also singled out Friday by former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki during his speech to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans – just hours before he submitted his resignation.

Shinseki stepped down amid a furor over patient waiting times for treatment at VA facilities, a controversy that began with allegations of lapses in care at the Phoenix VA.

A subsequent inspector general’s report found 1,700 Phoenix-area veterans who were not on any waiting list. The ongoing probe said the problem is systemic in VA facilities nationwide.

Lunsford said the theme of the day Wednesday was that while much is being done to reduce veteran homelessness, even one homeless vet is too many.

“Anything above zero is too high,” said Lunsford, adding that Phoenix will continue its efforts.

He said Phoenix is “really ahead of the curve,” but added that Stanton will continue to work with the Homeless Veteran Leadership Network, part of the National League of Cities.

“Within the city itself, city staff has continued to convene that group that got us to the point of ending chronic homelessness, and we’re going to continue those efforts,” Lunsford said.