We must view the issue of veteran homelessness as an ongoing, deeply rooted, and formidable challenge.
In 1970, after returning from a year in Vietnam (as a noncombatant, happy to say), the last thing I wanted to do was to dwell on my experience there. I wanted to—and did—move on with my life. As the decades rolled by, however, I became more interested in sorting out my experiences there as well as the various legacies of that war and, last year, I published a small book on those subjects.
I have since given the book to a number of Vietnam veterans, including my friend, Dave, who served on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta in 1968–1969, a very dangerous time and place. I recently saw Dave at a golf outing and he expressed his appreciation of the book. As we talked a bit, he began recalling his experiences and began to softly cry.
How does this story relate to homeless veterans? Dave’s emotions that day, 45 years after his service, demonstrate the devastating and long-term impact of the war experience on people. This is especially true in horrible wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Psychological impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and suicidal impulses can all be products of the war experience. Obviously, veterans with these issues are also those who are most likely to lose their housing.
We must, therefore, view the issue of veteran homelessness as an ongoing, deeply rooted, and formidable challenge. We now know beyond a doubt that Band-Aids do not work. Nor do simple solutions. What does work is stable housing with effective support services. We also need to move to a more holistic approach to the needs of veterans, and an integrated delivery system that incorporates the myriad public and private agencies that are trying to help vulnerable veterans.
In short, we need to build a sustainable infrastructure of housing and support services for veterans. We can do this through the HUD-VASH housing voucher program, the most important federal program focused on ending veteran homelessness. But, first, we need to permit more of these vouchers to be “project based” (that is, dedicated for new veteran housing) in order to create an inventory of dignified and safe housing for formerly homeless veterans.
Our society failed Dave and my generation of veterans. Many spent years on the streets and in shelters and some died there. It is not too late to help the current generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Will we have the compassion and competence to do it?
Tom Nurmi is a member of the Board of Trustees of the William S. Abell Foundation and chair of its Homelessness Committee. He also serves as Secretary of the Board of Funders Together.
To find out more about the HUD-VASH housing voucher program, read HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s letter to philanthropic partners. To make an impactful investment that will help permanently house homeless veterans, contact Funders Together Executive Director Anne Miskey.