Eradicating homelessness serves our veterans and communities

Eradicating homelessness serves our veterans and communities
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When I was in Marine Corps boot camp, we did a lot of running and we did most of it as a platoon, about 30 Marines. One day our captain said that we would be competing against the other two platoons in our company and we were going to be timed. I was a good runner when I was 19, so at about the 4-mile mark of the 5-mile run I was running with a small group out front. We had left many of our fellow Marines far in the rear. Our platoon leader ran up next to us and we thought he’d be proud that we were running so well. But what he said was, “Where’s your last man?” We didn’t know. “You know we’re timing every man in the platoon, and your time is only as good as your last man.” We got the message. Two of us dropped back and found our last man, who was struggling. We ran beside him, encouraged him and talked him across the finish line. They were training us to stick together, to take care of each other.

We need to do better for our own today, the men and women who have served our country vigilantly. Housing, mental health-care support, re-entry training and more, for those who have protected us, it is our turn to support those who have supported us.

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Despite hundreds of millions dollars spent, numerous government policies, and the best efforts of hundreds of communities, there are still more than 40,000 veterans living on our streets and the number is rising. Within this data, women make up 5 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans. The numbers across the board are sobering.

The five-year "Getting to Zero" effort, launched by the Obama Administration in 2009, was always an aspirational political goal. Federal estimates say the number of homeless veterans dropped by more than half from 2010 to 2016, a significant accomplishment. But faced with an intractable homeless veteran population that refused to drop further, the administration moved the goalposts.

“Functional Zero” was the new goal, a complicated formula that basically said that if there were enough homeless beds in each community to house every veteran who wanted (and asked) to get off the street, then the goal was achieved. But it has been difficult for communities to achieve even this reduced goal because the number of veterans falling into homelessness every month, is outstripping communities’ efforts to keep up.

Because that five-year effort was not completely successful, there is a sense that the government is moving on to other problems. There is no longer an emphasis and determination to get every veteran off the streets. The proof of this is evident in two, fairly recent federal policies:

  1. The VA has proposed taking critical permanent housing supportive service dollars out of the special projects category, where is it protected, and placing these dollars into the general fund, where medical directors can redirect it at will. This could result in deterioration of the case management assistance to chronically homeless and disabled veterans that is critical to their stability.
  1. Secondly, the new H.R.1 tax reform package proposed by Congress eliminates tax exemptions that will have a direct negative impact on tax credit projects that represent a significant percentage of the funding used to build affordable multi-family  housing for veterans.

Together, these two policy changes represent a direct attack on our ability to get veterans - men and women, off the street and into permanent housing, and provide the case management and supportive services that will keep them there.

A new VA study examined the factors that led to veterans’ homelessness. It found that veterans predominantly see their homelessness as rooted in nonmilitary, situational factors such as unemployment and the breakup of relationships, behavioral health, a lifetime of poverty and adverse events, and numerous difficulties in accessing and obtaining VA services and assistance.

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So, what do we need to do? If we are to not only protect, but grow the resources that will help us solve this problem, we will need an unprecedented advocacy effort to get our politicians and public officials to make this a priority. Political will is essential if we are to get the job done.

And what is the job? First of all, it will not be easy, which is why it hasn’t been accomplished. It will require a significant reallocation of resources or raising new funding to create a prevention network in every community that will provide the housing, mental health counseling and job assistance that will help veterans along the way to an independent life.

These include the continuing need for transitional housing to provide intensive rehabilitation; a more robust outreach effort to reach those desperate veterans who suffer in silence as they drift toward poverty, isolation and homelessness; and more compassionate communities who welcome new low-income housing along with the gentrification of inner cities.

We are dealing with massive systems — cities, counties, the federal government — that do not necessarily respond quickly to significant problems, especially when these systemic problems are the result of a market driven system that produces haves and have-nots.

Perhaps it is too much to expect entire communities to act like a platoon of Marines, but it is something to think about. Bringing up the rear, being ready and available to support our last men and women of our vast platoon of veterans. We owe this support to them and to those men and women, this Veteran’s Month who honorably serve.

Stephen Peck is the CEO and President of U.S.VETS, a national non-profit organization supporting comprehensive services to homeless and at-risk veterans outside of the VA.