Returning to Oregon to volunteer at the 2nd annual Columbia County Veterans stand down reminds me how truly privileged I am to have the chance to serve our nation’s Veterans. I count myself fortunate to be able to lead a team that works every day with our Congressional partners to improve VA services. If VA is going to be successful in ending Veterans’ homelessness by the end of 2015, it will take an all-hands-on-deck approach. Stand downs like this give me an opportunity, as a VA leader, to roll up my sleeves and work hand-in-hand with community partners and hundreds of our most in-need Veterans.
On Saturday, Feb. 1, the local not-for-profit group, Community Action Team Inc., in coordination with Columbia County, the State of Oregon, Disabled American Veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and other dedicated organizations put together an impactful event to help Veterans who have fallen on hard times and those most-at-risk for becoming homeless. Together we worked to provide them with the essentials like clothing, a fresh haircut, medical checkups and information on VA benefits. Veterans also met with private and public agencies about employment opportunities. These supportive services can help get a Veteran off the streets and gain greater independence.
People often speak to the importance of events like this; but reaching out to homelessVeterans or those most-at-risk hits close to home for me.
One day while rummaging through old black and white photographs, I found picture of a handsome man, John Walsh, in full uniform kneeling, holding a little girl’s hand. A second showed him smiling in his cook’s uniform, and scrawled proudly at the bottom in the rough handwriting of a five year old girl were the words, “My Daddy.”
I know little about my grandfather John Walsh. I know that he served in the U.S. Army during World War II and in Japan, and was portrayed as one of General Douglas MacArthur’s “favorite cooks,” and a runner on Wall Street. And he would eventually become a homeless Veteran.
When he was alive and after he died my family hardly spoke of him, other than he was a fighting man when he’d had too much to drink. It was painful for the family to talk about. But what happened? How did he go from an honorable soldier to a man without a home for several years before his life ended in such a sad and painful way?
John Walsh died on my fourth birthday in 1967, an alcoholic without a real home.
At some point – before he was cared for in his final days at the Manhattan VAMC and before he was laid to rest with dignity at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island – he was a man loved by many. He was like a lot of Servicemembers I see in uniform today and like the Veterans I have had the honor to serve over the past five years.
The image of my grandfather homeless is unlike the man he was in the photographs I found. How do we keep other Veterans from entering that downward spiral of joblessness, depression, and substance abuse that often leads to homelessness? My goal—VA’s goal—is to work to keep any Veteran off the streets and help all Veterans lead the most productive lives possible.
That’s why I’m so thankful for the dedicated volunteers and VA employees who are here in places like Columbia County every day serving our country’s Veterans. I made my way through the event, and I met with Veterans who had served in Vietnam, Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan. As I listened to their personal stories—some reminiscent of my grandfather’s–I reaffirmed VA’s commitment to ending homelessness by the end of 2015. VA and our partners work to provide access to safe, affordable housing and homeless prevention assistance. We continue to improve Veterans’ access to high quality, proactive, personalized, patient-driven care, employment services and educational opportunities that are transforming communities across the nation. In the past year alone, the number of homeless Veterans across the country dropped to around 57,000 on any given night, according to the 2013 Point in Time Count. That means that since 2010 there has been a 24 percent drop and since 2012, there are 5,000 fewer men and women that have worn our country’s uniform sleeping on the streets on any given night.
Yet in Columbia County, Ore., and other rural areas throughout this great nation, I met with homeless Veterans who still face challenges. They lack good public transportation to medical care or employment and dwindling affordable, permanent housing stock. While HUD-VASH vouchers may be available in some locations, other areas served by VA and the community partners I met in St. Helens rely on stretching SSVF grants as far as they can.
The decline in the number of homeless Veterans is proof that the work of VA employees and local organizations around the country is helping, but as I was reminded during my visit to Columbia County there’s still much that can be done.
- We’re working to obtain more affordable housing across the country with the help of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- We’re creating employment opportunities for Veterans.
- We’re working to reach out to and inform Veterans of the benefits and access to the health care to which they earned and deserved.
VA remains committed to ensuring that those who served our country have a warm place to call home.
You can play a major part in our fight to end Veterans’ homelessness. Below is information on how to lend a hand to a Veteran that may be in need.
- Know that one phone call can be the difference in the life of a Veteran who is homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless. Make the Call to 877-4AID-VET (424-3838) to be connected 24/7 with VA’s services to overcome or prevent homelessness for yourself or a Veteran you know.
- Information on Housing Assistance: http://www.va.gov/homeless/housing.asp
- Mental Health Services: http://www.va.gov/homeless/mental_health_services.asp
- Veterans Crisis Line: Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. http://veteranscrisisline.net/