Homeless veterans: Let's give our vets the homes, dignity and respect they deserve

Five years after embarking on an ambitious program to end homelessness among America’s military veterans by the end of 2015, officials backed off last month from that goal.  Instead, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald emphasized that it is more important and more effective to have in place a comprehensive system that is “sustainable” so that when we get to the zero designation on the homeless veteran population, “we can stay at zero.”

This is an ambitious yet essential goal.  Sadly, though, only about 30% of veterans actually are being served by the VA, the country’s largest system of assistance for veterans, including those who are homeless.

To be fair, through the efforts of the VA in partnership with Department of Housing and Urban Development and other government entities and non-government organizations across the country, including Soldier On (where I serve as CEO), veteran homelessness has decreased by 33% since 2010, according to HUD.  And a number of major cities, including Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New York have announced they  achieved or will achieve “functional zero” on their homeless veteran population by the new year.

Moreover, the VA-funded Supportive Services for Veteran Families initiative, which provides grants to community-based organizations across the country like Soldier On in support of innovative homeless prevention programs, has made a profound difference in ensuring that homeless and at-risk veterans and their families have access to the resources they need to successfully transition to permanent housing.

The real objective cannot be just about putting a roof over the heads of homeless veterans. We need to give them a home and give them back the dignity and respect they deserve and have earned.

Still, we are only one-third of our way to achieving the national goal.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), there are still more than 50,000 veterans who are homeless every night and 1.4 million who are at great risk of being homeless each day due to poverty, lack of support networks, and marginal living conditions in substandard housing.

The real objective cannot be just about putting a roof over the heads of homeless veterans. We need to give them a home and give them back the dignity and respect they deserve and have earned.

Consider that the NCHV reports that 70% of homeless veterans struggle with substance abuse, and 50% experience mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many homeless veterans end up living on the streets for eight or nine times the length of their deployment.

Female veterans are particularly at-risk. According to HUD, nearly 10% of homeless veterans, an estimated 13,000, are female, and that is expected to rise as more women serve and return home from their deployment. Many of these women are single parents of young children. The Department of Defense reported in 2010 that 30,000 females who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were single mothers, whereas the Department of Veterans Affairs found that about 20% of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are victims of military sexual assault.

Consider that out of the 500 VA-run homeless shelters, only slightly more than half accept women and few, if any, accept children. Very few have programs that are specifically tailored to female veterans or have separate living arrangements from men.

And it is not just the VA shelter system that is lacking.  One of the single largest barriers to veterans receiving health care and other VA-run services is the lack of transportation. In fact, while the VA will provide transport to a veteran to go to one of its health care facilities, that service is not available to the veteran's spouse or caregiver who needs to accompany the veteran to appointments.  The spouse or caregiver must find his or her own way, and far too often this is not a viable option.

In our rural area in Western Massachusetts, one of the five states in which we operate, 30%-35% of all medical appointments are missed due to lack of transportation. To fill the need, Soldier On partnered with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to establish a “One Call One Click” Center to provide free rides for all veterans and members of their household for medical appointments.  The center, which is operated solely by formerly homeless veterans, also accommodates callers who need rides for food shopping and other excursions.  It is not only a way to help more veterans, but also their family members, many of whom have experienced economic hardship and emotional trauma while their loved ones served.

So, if we hope to end veterans’ homelessness in the “sustainable” way emphasized by Secretary McDonald, it will require a fully integrated approach to address the multiple issues facing at-risk and homeless veterans and ensure they are able to carry on healthy productive lives in homes of their own.  For example, with our SSVF grants, we deliver a comprehensive array of services beginning at intake. Mental health services, substance abuse treatment, case management, peer support, medical and dental treatment, legal assistance, employment and educational services, assistance with benefits, temporary financial aid,  transitional housing – and, of course, transportation – are also among the essential components and are delivered to the veterans where they live.

Our approach also includes the first-of-its-kind limited equity cooperative housing model, through which dozens of homeless veterans live in the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community. Opened in 2010 in honor of the former assistant secretary of the VA and a decorated combat veteran, the village provides residents with a fully furnished single bedroom town home, the full complement of supportive services, and, notably, an equity stake in their home.  A second community scheduled to open in September will house 44 veterans, with 16 additional separate units set aside specifically for women veterans, and if necessary, their children. Six more housing projects are in the development stages.

Anyone who has donned a military uniform has essentially said that he or she will die for us.  It is incumbent that we at least show our gratitude, not just by providing them with a hand out in thanks but by providing a hand up to the thousands of veterans who are still on the street.