It's a national embarrassment that so many of the military men and women who served in wars overseas come back and don't have homes of their own or even places to sleep. California voters want to help veterans get decent homes, but their good intentions have fallen flat because of the government's ineffectiveness.

In 2008, California voters passed a $900 million bond for veterans' home loans. Those funds, administered by the state's Veterans Affairs Department, have gone practically untouched because would-be veteran homeowners picked up loans with better interest rates on the open market.

Meantime, nearly half of $500 million from a similar 2000 voter-approved bond measure is still unspent.

Photos and other military-related items on the wall of Army veteran Greg Baxter at a transitional housing facility in San Jose Thursday, July 11, 2013,
Photos and other military-related items on the wall of Army veteran Greg Baxter at a transitional housing facility in San Jose Thursday, July 11, 2013, designed to specifically cater to the needs of homeless military veterans. The new facility replaces a similar housing unit that operated in Menlo Park before closing unexpectedly in 2011, leaving the residents with no place to turn. This facility opened in May. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

That's more than a billion dollars meant to help homeless vets but sitting idle. It's time for it to be repurposed.

That's why Gov. Jerry Brown should sign AB639. The bill, by Assembly Speaker John Perez, would ask voters to decide, come election day in June 2014, whether to redirect $600 million of those unused funds toward building or rehabilitating housing for the neediest veterans -- ones who often find themselves living on city streets, shuffling between shelters and going without the mental health services they need. Voters approved the bonds and must also approve any changes to them.

Among other things, this change would aid long-term housing facilities for veterans who need to get on their feet, by providing job and health services at their homes.


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Right now the bond money can be spent only toward the purchase of single-family homes and farms. But the veterans who are lucky enough to afford homes are looking elsewhere for help.

The Center for Investigative Reporting found a more than 3 percent gap between the market rate and the Veterans Affairs Department's in October 2011, when private home loan rates fell to 2 percent. Rates were lowered, but all the while, homeless vets, many just off tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, struggled to find places to live.

Proponents of the bill say the cost of paying off the current bonds -- about $25 million annually -- would be offset by easing the strain on social services.

Their logic is substantiated by a report by the Economic Roundtable and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that estimates a homeless person living in a place where they can access supportive services costs the public 79 percent less than they do on the streets.

It would also give priority to funds that can be leveraged. With President Barack Obama's commitment to eliminate chronic veteran homelessness by 2015, more money is likely to be made available to such programs.

The governor should sign this bill now.