The Times West Virginian

December 26, 2013

Eliminating homelessness for veterans is top priority


Times West Virginian

— It’s hard to believe that those who give years of service to protecting our nation in peace time and in war can find themselves left out in the cold.

But it happens.

President Barack Obama’s administration has pledged to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. The government believes that some progress is being made toward that goal, with the homeless rate among veterans dropping by 25 percent since 2010. But, sadly, there are almost 60,000 veterans who are on the streets or in shelters on any given night.

“I have said from the beginning, the climb will get steeper the closer we get to the summit,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told The Associated Press earlier this year. “All the easy cases will have been housed. In the end, we will have the toughest, most difficult cases to solve — some prior failures, some behavioral problems, even some serious mental health issues.”

It’s unfortunate that so many of those who have served are wracked with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Sometimes those are major obstacles to being able to function within a family or a community, and many times that sends these veterans to the streets.

There is help. Federal funding will help pay rent for a permanent place to live. The Veterans’ Administration will provide mental illness and substance abuse treatment, as well as medical and dental care needed. Many times, Social Security income can help make ends meet.

And there are success stories. Just last week, Phoenix, Ariz., announced that it was the first city in the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness — two full years before the presidential timeframe ends. Three years ago, the city determined through its annual census that there were 222 homeless veterans living within the city. Officials started a campaign called “Housing First,” which as the name indicates, focused on providing permanent housing for those veterans without requiring them to be clean and sober before accepting them into a housing program. The theory was that once a permanent housing solution was found, those veterans could then focus on and be more capable of resolving other issues, like drug and alcohol use.

Once the substance abuse issues were addressed, the veterans of Phoenix were provided support services like medical care and job training.

Boston is working on the problem, as well, often enlisting other veterans to help in the process. A team of veterans, some formerly homeless themselves, looks for current homeless veterans and helps them find housing and support. The Veterans Affairs Department of Massachusetts, which funds the effort, is considering doubling the size of the team in the coming year.

Boston and Phoenix are shining examples of what can be done when local and federal organizations work together.

“When you put housing as the priority, the treatment and everything else comes along in a much more effective way because they’re getting their most basic needs met first,” said Vincent Kane, director of the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, which conducts policy analysis and research. “They’re not worried where their next meal is coming from or what roof will be over their head that night.”

The Marion County Coalition to End Homelessness is taking steps with its Housing First Initiative to combat the problem right here in our county and a census will be taken next month. We hope Marion County can be as successful as other areas in combating the problem of homelessness for veterans.

When someone who has given so much to this nation is hurting, we have to make it a priority to help.