Steve Peck: Why the VA’s New Tune About Services for Homeless Vets is Music to My Ears

This story originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 02/05/2016.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald was in Los Angeles last week to unveil the much-anticipated master plan for the West L.A. Veterans Affairs campus and sat for an interview with KPCC, one of our local public radio stations.

As you would expect, he’s enthusiastic about the master plan. After all, it was his leadership that got the fight over the future of the campus out of the federal courts. Los Angeles has more homeless vets than anywhere else in the nation and the campus has acres of empty space and lots of vacant buildings. It just made sense – especially to veterans – that it be better used.

The new plan, which will take years to execute, doesn’t solve our veteran homelessness problem in L.A., but it will help. But what really caught my attention was McDonald’s emphasis during the interview that shelter alone won’t solve the problem.

“It’s the wraparound care that really is customized to their needs and gets [homeless veterans] back on their feet,” McDonald said.

I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to hear him say that.

As the philosophy of “housing first” took hold across the nation over the last few years, I, along with scores of veteran service providers, continued to argue that taking homeless veterans off the sidewalks and putting them directly into permanent housing was only part of the solution. The real healing came about as a result of the kinds of services provided by U.S.VETS and others, who have more than 20 years of experience. These ongoing wraparound services are the long-term solution to the stubborn problem of homelessness.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln affirmed our obligation to “care for those who shall have borne the battle.” This most articulate of presidents used the word “care” not the word “house”, to describe our mission of serving veterans.

More than two years ago I wrote about “Housing First” and my misgivings about embracing this as a one-size-fits-all solution. That national policy was transmitted to communities and was often mistakenly interpreted as “housing only”.

Housing is the final step for all of our vets, but our primary concern is for their long term well-being. Have we helped them address all the barriers that caused them to fall into homelessness? Have we prepared them to live a life that is meaningful and rewarding? Most veterans, once they have exhausted all of their own resources and become homeless, can benefit from a service intensive, comprehensive program to help them get back on track.

Most importantly, this approach is also what the veterans themselves want. According to our own recent data, almost half of these clients will actively seek out and request service intensive transitional housing. They want to stay clean and sober. They want help finding jobs. As one of our vets said, “I want to be in a place where I get the moral support and confidence to get me through the difficulty of unemployment”.

Ask our clients about the long, tough hours they’ve put in toward a better life, and how U.S.VETS has helped them, and the word “structure” comes up a lot. These veterans are all grateful for the firm ground they were placed on through a variety of services–which made sure they didn’t slip through the cracks.

Troubled veterans – especially those who find themselves homeless – need a foundation as well as a roof. It’s that palpable sense of peace that comes from a firm foundation, the feeling of complete and total support beneath your feet that we have strived to bring to homeless and at-risk veterans for the last 23 years. That’s what lets a veteran’s steps toward progress continue -when they’ve got something firm to walk on.

Our comprehensive approach, I should mention, has an estimated 80 percent success rate all across the board for our 21 residential sites and 9 service centers in 14 cities across six states, D.C. and Guam.

As I wrote a couple years ago, no matter how vehemently we wish it were so, there simply is not a magical solution to the problem of veteran homelessness, the current count of which still stands at over 40,000 nationwide. Putting a roof over someone’s head may technically equal shelter, but it will do nothing to quell the storms that may be raging in the psyche of a veteran living alone in his or her apartment.

It is encouraging to see the VA and city and county governments stepping in line with what has been proven to be the most effective way to help homeless and at-risk veterans in the long-term.

This is something that we’ve reiterated over and over here at U.S.VETS, for almost 23 years. If you just pull someone in off the street without giving them the tools for success, more often than not, the street will come track them down again.

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.