As we remember those who have fought and sacrificed for our country on Veterans’ Day, we would do well to give a thought to the shameful abandonment of our veterans upon their return to the U.S. On any given night, some 600,000 people are homeless in the United States; about 9% of these are veterans, many of whom are suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses. Thankfully, the Obama administration has been taking dramatic steps to end this disgraceful state of affairs. In 2010, the President approved a program known as Opening Doors, the federal government’s first strategic plan to end and prevent homelessness, saying “it is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families, and our nation’s veterans to be homeless in this country.”
The program was given new vigor last year when First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Mayors’ Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a coalition of dozens of mayors and other local officials who pledged to eliminate veteran homelessness in their jurisdictions by the end of 2015. As that deadline approaches, the results of the program, backed by the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans’ Affairs (VA) have been overwhelmingly positive, with several major cities effectively eliminating the disgraceful scourge of veteran homelessness.
Demonstrating how easily-solvable many of the issues that our politicians decry as ‘unsolvable’ truly are, a mere six months after the announcement of the Mayors’ Challenge, three major American cities – Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans – had eliminated Veteran homelessness, decreasing their populations of veterans on the street from several hundred each to effectively zero. Since then, the success has become even more widespread. Over the summer, Houston, whose almost 4,000 homeless veterans were the second-most in the nation after Los Angeles, announced that it too had eliminated veteran homelessness. In a statement, Democratic mayor Annise Parker said, “Too often those that answered the call of service still find themselves struggling long after leaving the military,” but “our city has housed over 3,650 homeless veterans in just over three years, and has the resources to house every homeless veteran.” And, at a Veterans Day announcement with HUD and VA officials today, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe announced that his entire state, along with the cities of Las Vegas, Syracuse, and Schenectady, NY, had eliminated veteran homelessness as well.
This amazing transformation has been brought about by an infusion of federal, state, and local resources and a comprehensive and holistic approach to ending Veteran homelessness. The cornerstone of the effort has been the adoption of a Housing First approach, which, understanding that the stability of a permanent residence is often a prerequisite to addressing the other social and economic issues of homeless veterans, prioritizes obtaining housing for the homeless before all else and ignores drug testing and other unnecessary and superficial impediments to housing. Moreover, the VA has used a rapid re-housing program to target veterans with short-term rental subsidies and other assistance, and early detection and preventative efforts have been increased dramatically to assure that at-risk veterans and their families remain housed and integrated in their communities. Finally, outreach services to homeless veterans, often organized by other volunteer veterans, have been dramatically increased so that the entire veteran homeless population can be personally reached with the benefits of the new programs and other initiatives like job training.
For too long our nation has been content to toss our courageous veterans by the wayside when they return from service, and this has led to a chronic homelessness problem of tremendous proportions. Luckily, the far-sighted policies of the Obama administration have begun to put a serious dent in our populations of veterans on the streets. Moreover, recent initiatives at both the state and federal levels have sought to do the same for overall homelessness, which is of course a much larger – but no less important – issue to tackle. It is absolutely disgusting that, in a one of the wealthiest nations on Earth – whose companies have revenues larger than the economies of most countries and whose profit-driven business practices have left 18.6 million houses vacant – more than 3.5 million people, a full 1% of the population, will experience homelessness in any given year. The campaign to end veteran homelessness is a major shift in the right direction for policy makers (even as others continue the backwards policies of criminalizing homelessness) and hopefully these efforts can be expanded to eliminate homelessness once and for all in this great nation.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.