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.