We’ve all walked past them—lying in doorways under boxes or bundled up on the corner asking for food and spare change. In the U.S. today, homelessness is a serious issue for Veterans and non-Veterans alike. But all too often, the homeless are invisible—or a nuisance associated with city living. It’s especially troubling to me when I consider each was once an ammo bearer, a radio operator, a team leader, or a rifleman—and that each one potentially once wore the same patch I did. For this reason, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged over a year ago to end Veteran homelessness within five years—and he did it as part of a government-wide effort to find solutions to the problem once and for all.
As part of that effort last week, volunteers fanned out in 4,000 cities and conducted over 400 point-in-time counts and interviews of the homeless across the country. The effort was led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get out and record the number of homeless people who’ve taken to the streets.
Before the Washington, D.C. count began, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan explained to the volunteer counters the importance of not only knowing how many people are homeless, but how and for how long, among other important factors like previous income and family support. This helps determine changing trends in populations, the effectiveness of existing resources and acts as a measure of success (and failure) of current programs.
The volunteers emptied out of a downtown church into the freezing night, trudging down snow and ice covered sidewalks and armed with clipboards, bent on collecting demographic information of the homeless. Along for the count was VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould, who took up a stack of surveys and led a group through the center of the city. Government executives at Deputy Secretary Gould’s level usually show up to this sort of thing for a quick photo op, a brief speech, and then head out as soon as the cameras stop clicking. But he stuck around for the entire count, which ended near midnight for his group.
“Are you a military Veteran?” was one of the most important questions Deputy Secretary Gould and other counters asked of the homeless that night. HUD uses the count as a way to determine the number of homeless Veterans in the country. It’s important to get that number right so that solutions are tailored to the actual number of homeless. A crucial aspect of the count was a card with resources available for homeless Vets to utilize. VA supplies that information not only for those who are currently homeless but those who are at risk of living on the streets. Prevention remains a primary tool in the effort to end homeless for Veterans.
From what I witnessed during the count, the homeless are often not lazy transients who choose to be on the streets. Many had families and jobs but fell on hard times like many in the country. Veterans are historically more at risk of becoming homeless than civilians, for a variety of reasons: post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and the difficult transition from the military. Some in our society seek to blame the homeless for their plight, but for many Veterans, it’s a matter of dealing with the unique challenges that Vets face after their service both at home and in war.
Veteran homelessness is a shameful blight on this country that has been allowed to fester far too long. On any given night, approximately 107,000 Veterans across the country go to sleep on benches, in back alleys and under bridges. Roughly twice that number will experience homelessness at some point this year. Drastic action must be taken not only to drive down the amount of homeless Vets, but keep a new generation off the streets. And the action we took on a cold night last week was just one of the many programs we’ve undertaken at VA.