Steve Peck: L.A.’s Homeless Count is Sobering

The latest Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority annual homeless count is sobering and bittersweet.

As a homeless veterans’ advocate, I’m heartened by the decrease in homelessness among veterans, and proud of the contribution U.S.VETS has made, helping more than a thousand male and female veterans find homes, jobs, and a new life. After years of concentrated effort and the infusion of millions of dollars in federal aid, the number of veterans living on our streets has reduced by 30% over the last year.

At the same time, the overall number of homeless people rose by 5.7% in the county, and 11% in the city. Skid Row and the tents and campsites along freeways are heartbreaking. Families live in cars and vans. Dedicated U.S.VETS outreach workers navigate this depressing turf every day.

The numbers alone are staggering – but they don’t tell the whole story. There are larger dynamics going on that are pushing people out of the mainstream.

Los Angeles already spends more than $900M yearly on services for the homeless and it is plainly not enough. The new county and city plans estimate that $1.85 billion will have to be spent over the next decade just to address the lack of affordable housing. That doesn’t include the all-important support services that will address the deficits people have that caused their homelessness, and the creation of a support service network to provide services that will prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

So, in theory, Los Angeles will have to spend more than double what we are now spending to catch up with the problem. And this begs two questions:

  • First, where will we find the political will to target these dollars and at what expense? The amount of money the city and county have to spend is finite and spending it to solve the homeless problem will mean taking it out of another pot.
  • Second, is money the answer? The dynamics that cause people to become homeless are many and varied – lack of opportunity or lack of education, difficult life circumstances, mental illness, an increasingly competitive world, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, or absence of any role model or mentor that will lead a person born into poverty toward a better life. Can we find the capacity, and the commitment to our community, to address these issues?

When I was in Marine Corps boot camp we did a lot of running, and we did most of it as a platoon, about 30 marines. One particular day our captain said that we would be competing against the other two platoons in our company and we were going to be timed. I happened to be a good runner so at about the 4-mile mark of the 5-mile run I was running with a small group out front. We had left many of our fellow marines far in the rear. Our platoon leader ran up next to us and we thought he’d be proud that we were running so well. But what he said was, “Where’s your last man?” We didn’t know. “You know we’re timing every man in the platoon, and your time is only as good as your last man.” We got the message. Two of us dropped back and found our last man who was struggling. We ran beside him, encouraged him, and talked him across the finish line. They were training us to stick together, to take care of each other.

Perhaps it is too much to expect an entire community the size of Los Angeles to act like a platoon of marines, but it is something to think about.

Stephen J. Peck served as a lieutenant in the 1st Marine Division in the Vietnam War, near Da Nang, from 1969 to 1970. As a documentary filmmaker 20 years after the war, he met a paraplegic Vietnam veteran with PTSD who was living in a car – with his Silver Star in the glove compartment. Struck by the experience, Mr. Peck chose to dedicate his life to serving veterans.

Mr. Peck earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work from USC. He joined U.S.VETS as Director of Community Development in 1996, and was named president and CEO in 2010. He is also the President of the California Association of Veteran Service Agencies (CAVSA) a consortium of six nonprofit veteran service providers working in partnership to address the needs of California’s veterans.

A national leader in the fight against veteran homelessness, he has been honored by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the USC School of Social Work, the American Legion Auxiliary, and the City of Long Beach. He was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2012.