Veterans in Poverty

HomelessVetIt is an all-too familiar sight: an aging, often disabled, homeless man lingering on the side of a road, the cardboard sign he holds identifying him as a veteran. Many people assume that homeless veterans are the remnants of a bygone era, victims of a country unwilling to welcome them home after the hugely unpopular Vietnam war. Today, “Support the Troops” is a national rally cry – whatever political opinions one has about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unthinkable to disrespect the brave men and women in uniform who serve our country. Most people would never imagine that those serving today would face the same challenges coming home that their counterparts faced 40 years ago.

Homelessness doesn’t just affect Vietnam-era veterans, however. More than 35% of post-9/11 veterans in Los Angeles County do not have enough employment to provide a sustainable level of income. Most these veterans are rent-burdened, spending between 30-50% of their monthly income on rent alone, and nearly a third spend more than half of their income on rent. As the wars in the Middle East continue to wind down, more and more veterans are returning home to a country that doesn’t have jobs waiting for them.

The high cost of living in California prevents tens of thousands of these veterans from fully reintegrating with civilian life. In fact, more than 25% of the nation’s homeless veterans live in California.

On Tuesday, April 9, Stephen Peck addressed these concerns to the California State Senate. Funding through SB 391 (the California Homes and Jobs Act of 2013) could be used to provide housing and services to California’s large veteran population. “We would like to see this bill honor the special commitment we have made to veterans by putting some focus on this population,” said Peck.

As President and CEO of U.S.VETS, which is based in Los Angeles and is the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of comprehensive services to homeless and at-risk veterans, Peck is well aware of the challenges facing homeless veterans. Over the last 20 years, U.S.VETS has been part of a movement that has reduced the homeless veteran population by two-thirds. “But that doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Peck. There are still 19,000 homeless veterans in California alone. Every effort must be made not only to reduce the number of older veterans already living on the streets, but to prevent young vets from ever ending up there.

Peck wants SB 391 to have stronger language about the impact of the bill for homeless veterans, so that “an appropriate amount of this funding can be used to help those who have served our country.” The funding would provide safe, clean housing for veterans who would not be able to afford it otherwise.

No matter where or when they served, veterans deserve the funding support for affordable housing in California. “There is a national effort to end homelessness among veterans and the creation of affordable housing with support services is a key part of that effort,” said Peck. “If we are going to give these young veterans a chance, if we’re going to enable disabled veterans to live a life of dignity, if we’re going to give struggling veteran families a chance, we have to create housing that they can afford, otherwise we risk the danger of creating a permanent lower class, locked out of the American dream. We have to make inroads on this vulnerable population. No veteran who served our country should live the indignity of substandard housing or homelessness.”

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