Steve Peck: What Does the End of Veterans’ Homelessness Look Like?

On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Vietnam, Steve Peck, the CEO and president of U.S.VETS, a former Marine lieutenant who served there in 1969, addressed a forum of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. It might have been four decades since American troops left Saigon, but the symposium was titled, “What Does the End of Veterans’ Homelessness Look Like?”

The outlook was less than clear.

More post 9-11 battlefields and the failure of the United States to adequately care for its Vietnam vets made the symposium very relevant.

As the keynote speaker and panelist for the event, Peck presented some of what he has learned in his twenty years of working with homeless veterans. His remarks were as follows:

 

We’re here today based on a premise – that no man or woman who has served their country should be living on our streets. Yet they are out there.

Much of what I know about homeless vets I learned as an outreach worker with the VA in the early 90’s. I met a thousand different homeless vets with a thousand different stories. We had a drop-in clinic, and one day a homeless vet named Emil was shown into my office. He was in his mid-fifties and had a thick Eastern European accent. He said that for years he had been sleeping in the back of an auto repair shop thanks to the generosity of the owner.

As we spoke he constantly scanned the room, and he looked concerned every time I wrote something down. It became apparent that he was a mental health patient and had severe paranoid thoughts that were the cause of his homelessness. He trusted no one and absolutely knew someone was out to get him.

When the conversation got too personal Emil got up to leave, but I asked him to think about coming back to see me when he wanted. And he did. Over the next couple of months he came to talk to me a few times a week. Every time I asked him to consider coming in off the street into housing, he balked.

He always said the same thing. “If I do that, I’ll be a dead duck.”

Twice I arranged for a screening at the Domiciliary at the VA. Emil showed up both times, tolerated the screening questions, but at the end, he couldn’t get himself to sign the admission form and left, much to the frustration of the Dom staff.

I convinced the Dom staff to give him another chance, and finally, working with Mental Health, we got him to the screening one more time and he agreed to come into housing.

Emil was not on our schedule; he came in on his own time and when he was able.

Sometimes this is what it takes, and you can’t put a timetable on that. More and more of the veterans who are on the streets today have a mental illness and we are just going to have to keep working with them until we can gain their trust.

God knows where Emil is today. But his story is symbolic of the challenge we face in ending veteran homelessness. Despite our best efforts, it’s going to happen when that final veteran decides it’s time to come in.

It’s going to take patience, it’s going to take focus, and it’s going to take a lot of personal involvement.

We have plainly come a long way since I was trying to help Emil.

Twenty-five years ago there were two hundred and fifty thousand homeless veterans – an astoundingly embarrassing number.

In 1990 a group of Vietnam vets formed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. The founders of the NCHV assailed the VA for years about its lack of services for homeless vets. The result of their effort was legislation that established the Grant Per Diem Program, which now has 15,000 beds across the country.

The quarter million veterans who were homeless in this country in the early 90s has been reduced to less than fifty thousand. Here in Los Angeles, that number is about four thousand.

But that means four thousand veterans are still sleeping on the streets here, and that’s four thousand too many.

The VA Secretary’s challenge to end homeless by the end of this year has focused attention on the issue. There is a lot of activity, especially here in L.A. – which we are all sad to say, is the homeless capital of the nation.

My personal belief is that on January 1, 2016, we will still have homeless veterans on our streets beyond the number that is considered “functional zero”. My saying this doesn’t mean we will work any less hard to get veterans off the street and into housing … nor does it make it any less likely that we will achieve that lofty goal.

I say it because we need to be honest with ourselves and we need to begin planning for the long fight ahead of us.

Despite the unprecedented effort to end homelessness among veterans by the end of this year, events between now and January 2016, and beyond, will bring challenges to our veterans that we will have to be prepared for:

  • A young soldier in Afghanistan will be riding in a Humvee and watch his best friend blown up and killed by a roadside bomb. His return to the U.S. will be haunted by survivor’s guilt.
  • A marine ,two years back from the war with one years’ sobriety, will get fired from his job, get into an argument with his wife and start drinking again.
  • A female soldier will be sexually assaulted by a superior officer and be intimidated into keeping her silence – then she will be discharged, still struggling with the anger and emotional wounds caused by the assault.
  • A Vietnam veteran who retired last year will lose his wife to cancer, and in his lonely nights nightmares of the battle of Khe San, where he fought bravely, will come back to him. Khe San was one of the worst battles of the long Vietnam war, where Marines were surrounded and shelled by the North Vietnamese Army for more than a month.

The psychic wounds caused by these incidents will reverberate over the coming years and in some cases will lead to homelessness.

Up to sixty thousand vets will be returning to Los Angeles in the next five years and we will have to be ready for them – year after year. This past year, ten percent of the vets entering our programs at U.S.VETS were post-9/11 vets, up from only four percent a few years ago.

It has been the common belief in the past that the VA holds the solution to this problem.

But the VA has not been given the money to serve the number of veterans that are asking for help. More than 2.8 million have now served in the wars in the Middle East. As of 2009, more veterans were hospitalized for mental health disorders than were seeking help for physical injury or illness.

In reality, the VA drastically underestimated the number of veterans who would need care after their return, so tens of thousands are currently going untreated. Add to that the growing number of aging Vietnam veterans. This lack of capacity to serve has its consequences:

  • 4 million veterans in America are living below the poverty line, with another 1.4 million living just above it. In California, the number below the poverty line is more than 160,000. Many of these are aging and disabled veterans of the Vietnam era.
  • More than 35% of post-9/11 vets in L.A. County, do not have employment that provides a sustainable level of income.
  • The poverty rate for the youngest veterans, the 18-24 year olds, is 21%.
  • 25% of L.A. County’s post 9/11 veterans are rent-burdened, which means they spend 30-50% of their incomes on rent.

These are significant systemic issues that are going to require us to reorganize our priorities if we are to solve them.

Long after the images of the war disappear from our TVs and newspapers, thousands of families will be living with the memory of a loved one killed in combat; tens of thousands of physically wounded veterans and their families will live with the daily reminder of their disability.

Some of the wounds our soldiers suffer are evident: lost limbs, blindness, spinal cord injuries. These wounds are immediately recognizable and understood. But many more come back with the invisible wounds of war – combat trauma, traumatic brain injury – and these disabled veterans will number in the hundreds of thousands.

The physical, moral and spiritual impact this will have on veterans and their families will be felt for years to come.

I read a book a few years ago titled “Rule Number Two” by Heidi Kraft, a psychologist who was stationed with a combat stress unit in Iraq for seven months. The title refers to an old saying: “Rule number One is that young men will die in war, Rule number Two is that you can’t change rule number One”. War will always take its toll on the generation that fights it.

The history of warfare is the story of conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings. Decent and compassionate men must be transformed into warriors, and in order to be successful warriors, they must become predators. In war, you are either prey or predator, and only by becoming predator can you overcome the terrors of being on the battlefield.

So what is a necessary survival skill in war, is a transgression in civil society.

After the return home, killing once again becomes homicide. The plane ride home takes less than a day, but the mental transformation can be much more difficult. The soldier, now returned to a civilized society which is run by norms ignored in war, has the task of rewiring the very instincts that kept him or her alive in the combat zone.

The horrible things that soldiers and marines have seen and done in Iraq or Afghanistan, must be put into a perspective that allows them to move on with their lives. That is easier said than done and many will not be able to make the transformation successfully.

In ancient societies, warriors were welcomed home from foreign wars with ceremonies and rituals. During the time of the Roman Empire they went through a cleansing ritual. The purpose of the ritual was to acknowledge that they had performed acts in war that were not acceptable in normal society, but they had done this at the behest of the state and were now welcomed back and were embraced again by their community and their family.

We lack such rituals today because of the sheer numbers of combatants and the lack of cohesive communities.

It is no wonder that so many of our returning soldiers are experiencing reintegration challenges, not only combat trauma but all that springs from that condition: difficulty in relationships, difficulty holding a job. Too many are covering these difficulties with drugs and alcohol, and worse yet, suicide.

Many young men and women come back with the leadership skills that prepare them to become leaders in their communities. But some will not fare so well and these are the ones we have to seek out.

So many vets who are homeless today, or on the verge of homelessness, are not seeking us out due to pride or embarrassment, or the stigma associated with admitting mental illness. The complications that lead someone down the path toward homelessness are numerous, and sometimes misunderstood.

Homelessness is the end result of a whole 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 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 one single factor that, if solved, will end homelessness as we know it.

But people are looking for a solution. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decades, Congress is looking for a solution. The danger is that someone will determine that they have the one answer to homelessness, and policy makers will come up with a single answer where a more complex array of interventions is needed.

One predominant message has brought many to the conclusion that housing alone is the solution to homelessness; the panacea Congress has been seeking.

But if housing were the solution, given the money, we could simply build our way out of this crisis. That would be ignoring two crucial aspects of the problem. Please, remember Emil.

First, it ignores that long line of events which led to their homelessness. Addressing those issues is how we heal the wounds that caused their homelessness, and is how we empower people with the skills that will enable them to lead a successful life.

And secondly, how about all the people who are falling into homelessness every year, which is approximately two and a half times the number of people who are homeless on any one night? That stream of people has been subjected to a life story that a roof over their heads will not completely solve.

We are dealing with a societal issue that has been long in the making. Putting a five-year time limit to fix this problem is unrealistic. It sets up programmatic expectations that are unrealistic and potentially detrimental in the long run.

If I had a broken leg I would not go to the doctor and say, “You’ve got a week to heal me.” It takes as long as it takes and, let me be clear, that does not mean that any of us work less hard at solving the problem.

U.S.VETS has more than 400 dedicated employees who work night and day to help homeless vets get off the street and become healthy citizens. It is good to set high expectations and it has focused a lot of attention on the task before us, but “Getting to Zero” is just the first phase of the operation. It is a massive effort designed to eliminate the most obvious manifestations of a more fundamental problem.

Rather than say this is our end date, let’s say we’re going to throw everything we’ve got at it, and by December 31st, we’ll have built a comprehensive system in our communities that will catch every veteran falling toward homelessness, provide him the services he needs to stabilize him or herself, then guide him back into the mainstream to succeed.

The first person who, on December 31st, 2015, plants the flag and says we’ve won the battle against veterans’ homelessness, I’m going to kick him in the shins – unless of course, it’s the President of the United States. Then I’ll have to come up with a different response.

My wife is a professional food person, and a great cook. I always do the barbecuing at home and I used to ask her, as she’d hand me a half of a salmon or chicken rubbed with Ras El Hanout, how long should I cook it? I’m a guy, I wanted a number. How many minutes? Her answer was always the same – until it’s done.

I have a different reaction to seeing homeless vets on the street than many people – it makes me mad. It makes me mad that we have a deficient system that lets people fall through the cracks, that the fabric of our society has come so unstrung that people who are falling into desperation can slide into homelessness, and there’s nothing out there for them to grab on to.

An L.A. Times article a couple of weeks ago said that a recent study shows that Los Angeles is spending 100 million dollars a year on homelessness, which sounds impressive. But as much as $87 million of that goes to arrests, skid row patrols and mental health interventions. So we are spending most of the money on the manifestations of homelessness rather than the root causes of homelessness.

As is often the case, the answer to a problem of this complexity is multifaceted and there is no easy fix. A solution will force us to not only look at the homeless and the many needs they have, but at ourselves and our society and the way we live.

There is less “community” in our large metropolitan areas, and more callousness; more isolation, and more selfishness. The haves and have-nots are farther and farther apart.

We have to go beyond what we know, and imagine what can be. We have to be prepared to work on this until we don’t see any more homeless veterans holding up signs at freeway off-ramps, until homeless vets stop landing in jail just to have a place to sleep at night.

We have to be prepared to work on this until it’s done. There is no finish line.

Our fondest hope, always, is that we are so successful, that we work ourselves out of a job – that there are no more veterans who don’t know where to turn, and that every veteran will have access to the support and services they need to lead a productive life, secure in the knowledge that they are appreciated for the sacrifice they have made for our country.

Comments
  • John Anderson

    Mr Peck — I was in attendance that day for your remarks and those of the various panelists. As a Viet Nam combat veteran, the welfare of all of our vets is routinely on my mind. I appreciate all of the hard work of the panelists and the sponsor as they pursue solutions to this very vexing problem.

    One thought I had during and after the panel discussion was that each member framed his or her “solutions” in a programmatic fashion. While I understand that people in academia and various not for profit,
    or government organizations frequently depend on grants to do their good work and those grants fund “programs”, I believe that new and different thinking is requires to actually solve the problem.

    Programs often take on a life of their own and become institutionalized. Once this occurs, they exist to exist, bureaucracy takes over and their direction and efficacy are lost. I would offer that a more strategic, overarching solution should be pursued as opposed to standalone “programs” that may not run concurrently and frequently suffer from poor communications and internal competition.

    As food for thought, I offer the following.

    We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

    Albert Einstein

Leave a Comment