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John Cary

Shelter for Those Who Served



Design: Laura Crescimano & David Mayman, courtesy of Community Solutions

Out of work for more than two decades, my uncle Tom, a Vietnam veteran whom I idolized as a kid, somehow made ends meet. Our family was never quite sure how, and we were too polite to ask. Over a cryptic phone call with my mom one gray fall day, Tom divulged that he was severely in debt. Creditors were calling him constantly, leading to paranoia and depression. This uncle, with whom we shot hoops and played catch, rapidly declined into a shell of his former self. Tom stopped eating, resisted the efforts of compassionate VA caregivers we summoned to help, and ultimately holed up in his dark apartment.

Our family rallied around Tom in every way we knew; my dad successfully filed for bankruptcy in his behalf mere days before the 2005 Bush bankruptcy reform bill took effect. After many months, the VA provided Tom the refuge and help he needed in Milwaukee’s VA Medical Center, where, at 64, he now shares a sparse dormitory room with other veterans.

Tom is one of an estimated 144,000 homeless veterans who are in dependent transitional housing, shelters, or living on the street, according to a report issued recently by the VA in partnership with the Department of Housing & Urban Development. It’s roughly the current number of service people deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. With a loving family and effective professional care from the VA, Tom is among the luckiest. Too many veterans don’t have the family support that guided him to the care that, most likely, saved his life.

Our country should redouble its efforts to lift and keep its bravest service people off the streets. These are human beings who answered the call for service or voluntarily enlisted, risking their lives for our freedom and national security. They deserve much better.

The numbers are staggering. According to 2010 data, released recently by HUD and the VA, 17 percent of the U.S. adult homeless population consists of veterans. Of those, approximately half are over 51, though the proportion of younger Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is growing. A parallel study recently released by the national nonprofit Community Solutions found that homeless veterans have subsisted without permanent shelter for an average of 6 years, a third longer than non-veterans.

The care needed for homeless veterans extends well beyond basic shelter and deep into matters of physical and mental health. Explains the Community Solutions report, “Among the 62% of homeless veterans who reported two or more years of homelessness, over 61% reported a serious physical health condition, 55% reported a mental health condition, 76% reported a substance abuse habit, and 32% reported all three.” Meanwhile, homeless veterans who took part in the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are nearly 10 percent more likely to have incurred traumatic brain injuries than homeless veterans from previous wars.

We must recognize and eliminate the barriers facing veterans and their families who require help and housing. Aided by a diverse roster of partners, Community Solutions and its 100,000 Homes campaign reveal that new pilot projects in New York and Los Angeles have reduced the length of time it takes to house a homeless veteran by an average of 64 days. The successes of these two cities are significant: California and New York are among the four states that account for more than half of all homeless veterans.

Community Solutions’ work in Los Angeles, with its partner, Home for Good, offers a viable model for other cities. Together, they set a goal to streamline the process of housing veterans from approximately 86 steps in many months to 10 steps in 10 days. Myriad other organizations were brought to the table to eliminate redundant and unnecessary paperwork and steps. The VA, public housing authorities and other government agencies have been crucial partners for Community Solutions nationwide and Home for Good in LA, fueling their optimism in recent VA reforms. Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki has pledged to eradicate homelessness among veterans by 2015. Still, much work remains.

My uncle represents a best-case scenario —with a roof over his head, professional care and a supportive family nearby — but anything less is unconscionable and immoral. That we live in a country that allows service people to even come close to being homeless is shameful.

Posted in: Shelter

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John  Cary John Cary is editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good. He writes widely on design, architecture, public service and social justice. Twitter is @johncary.

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Comments [5]
Such an important story. But I am dismayed at the illegibility of the graphic, especially from a design newsletter! At least it should be clickable to enlarge. I could not make heads or tails of it the way it is presented here.

This line from the article bears repeating:
That we live in a country that allows service people to even come close to being homeless is shameful.

Thank you for the article, I will follow up with Home For Good in Los Angeles.
S Thompson
12.03.11
02:50

Important issue, John. Bravo for raising it. One of the ironies of homelessness in this country is that it costs the public almost twice as much to have a homeless person living on the streets (and consuming a lot of police, emergency room, and hospital services) than it does placing that person in supportive housing. This is where the moralism and the minimal government ideology of the political right come in conflict. The best way to reduce public expenditures related to the homeless is to get them housed, but that will demand that we stop moralizing about their being "loafers." And for anyone who has known (or been a) homeless person, you know that it is a very hard life and the opposite of loafing.
Thomas Fisher
12.23.11
03:59

That statistic is pretty disturbing, not to say scary! I can't help but wonder how could the memory of society be that short! After all these people were ready to sacrifice their lives serving for their country. Is this the way to reward them for the courage and the self-renunciation? I don't think so.
youngharry33
04.27.12
03:17

My husband is an active military officer and I am really disturb by reading such a statistic! He has been on a numerous missions in Iraq and now goes frequently back and forth to Afganistan and I can not believe that we as a family may encounter such issues, when he retires!
ShylaC
05.25.12
04:32

These are really found horrible that shelter issues are still in a down way and in most of the countries people doesn't able to get proper shelter for their livelihood, so its the genuine responsibility of public as well as the government to provide a proper attention on homeless people and provide a better shelter service for them.
robertC86
08.09.12
07:06



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