As we approach the unofficial start of summer this Memorial Day, I probably won’t be the only one to interrupt your barbecue or beach day by asking that we take a moment to remember what the holiday is really about. Across the country, there will be parades and memorial services for those lost in wars. At the same time, other veterans are fighting a new battle, returning home only to become homeless.
More than 62,000 veterans will experience homelessness tonight, with twice that number not having a place to stay over the course of this year. Veterans represent seven percent of the general population, yet 13 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness can claim veteran status.
President Obama and Veterans Administration Secretary Eric K. Shinseki have pledged to end veteran homelessness by the year 2015. Great, another pledge to end a timeless problem before a looming deadline. How could the plan to end veteran homelessness be different from various 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness around the country?
Well… it could work. There are plenty of issues with veteran care still happening nationwide, but in the race to end homelessness, this plan is showing signs of success. The Veterans Administration has regional offices to provide a wide range of services either directly or via innovative partnerships with other organizations, and is committed to expanding its scope of care to meet the needs of the thousands of veterans who need comprehensive services.
In late 2012, the VA announced a $300 million grant program for veteran services, and pledged to increase the number of mental health professionals nationwide by 1,900. In Maryland, the VA has implemented a program to provide homeless veterans with free dental care at the University of Maryland dental school. At Salt Lake City Community College in Utah, 169 veterans graduated this week, due to the school’s comprehensive veterans’ center and partnership with the VA.
While many veterans need emergency or health services, there is more to consider. After performing valiantly overseas, many military personal return to the states and don’t qualify for traditional employment. There is a need for programs to help reintegrate veterans into the workforce, but few are doing this effectively. The Mission Continues is a new program in Missouri that connects post 9/11 veterans with fellowships and trains them to be community leaders domestically. Through six-month fellowships at non-profit organizations, veterans use skills they already have and build new ones so that they can continue to lead the country at home. The Mission Continues does not directly address homelessness, but preventative measures and creative programs can help alleviate veteran poverty before it begins.
Unlike plans to end homelessness in the general population, the plan to end Veteran Homelessness seems to be moving in the right direction. With a twelve percent decrease in veterans experiencing homelessness this year and a seventeen percent decline since 2009, there is a real possibility that the VA and its partners have found solutions that actually work. While other homeless service providers face budget cuts, the VA has the resources to provide increased financial and personal support to get people off the street.
I am not begrudging anyone his or her long weekend, but this battle is far from won. There are VA claims for services backlogged for days, months and even years. There are veterans who will spend this Memorial Day in shelters or on streets, and that is unacceptable. Now could be a turning point, but there is plenty of hard work ahead. If programs are working, we must continue to fund and staff them through 2015. What veterans need from us is not a parade, but governmental agencies working on processing VA claims, on providing necessary services and programs, and on ending veteran homelessness.