by Steve Peck
This article originally appeared in The Long Beach Press Telegram on November 11, 2013.
We are fighting a war in America to care for those we sent to war.
On this Veterans Day it is vital that we remember more than 2 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and as many as 30 percent have returned with post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other emotional wounds that threaten to disrupt their lives.
In Los Angeles County more than 32,000 veterans are projected to experience homelessness in the next two and half years.
As president and CEO of U.S. VETS, the nation’s largest non-profit serving homeless and at-risk veterans, I and my organization are on the front lines — as is Long Beach.
U.S. VETS-Long Beach, which opened in 2000, is located at the Villages at Cabrillo, a 26-acre former naval base. It is the largest transitional housing facility for homeless and at-risk veterans. On any given day 550 previously homeless veterans live there in both transitional and permanent housing.
U.S.VETS-Long Beach offers job training and placement, substance abuse treatment, a program for female veterans and specialized services for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
And while we’ve recently made progress with programs like we have in Long Beach, there is a lot yet to be done locally. For example: More than 35 percent of post-9/11 Veterans in L.A. County have employment that provides less than a sustainable income level. The poverty rate for the youngest veterans, the 18-24 year olds, is 21.3 percent. Twenty five percent of L.A. County’s post-9/11 veterans are rent-burdened, which means they spend 30 percent to 50 percent of their incomes on rent.
While the statistics are important, we can’t ever forget we are talking about men and women who have served their country.
Homelessness is the end result of a series of events that result in diminished capacity, loss of self-determination, most often loss of employment, loss of family, isolation, poverty, and lack of self-esteem, all leading to inability to pay for housing.
Walking out of a home for the last time without knowing where to lay your head that night is the final straw in a long line of trials that are brought on by life’s cruel circumstances, some prompted by bad habits and self-deception, others the result of substance abuse or mental illness, lack of opportunity or lack of education. There is no single factor that if solved, will end homelessness.
In the late 1980s the homeless veteran service provider community began educating the public and government about the increasing numbers of homeless veterans. By that time, the number had reached upwards of a quarter of a million — virtual regiments of veterans living on the streets and in the homeless shelters of the richest nation on earth.
As a result of persistent and passionate advocacy, the Veterans Administration began taking steps to address this issue, working with hundreds of community non-profits to create a system of 15,000 transitional housing beds. Over the past 20 years the system has reduced homelessness among veterans by three-quarters.
As is often the case, there is no easy fix. A solution will force us to not only look at the homeless, but at ourselves and the way we live. There is less “community” in our large metropolitan areas, more isolation and more selfishness. The haves and have-nots are farther and farther apart.
The solution will demand that we deploy a robust range of prevention and early intervention services — like those offered at U.S.VETS-Long Beach that slow the flow of veterans sliding off the edge.
This will not be cheap, but it is considerably less expensive, and more humane, then waiting for people’s lives to unravel and end up on the street.