Until very recently, homelessness among our veterans has been largely ignored.
I recently sat down with a homeless Vietnam veteran; he wanted to discuss poetry. He had come late to homelessness, having only recently lost his long-time job and, as he put it, “everything else.” He said that he had found some measure of hope in poetry, which is helping him slowly work through his issues. He seems to be making progress toward his goals of a job and stability in his life.
In these difficult times, his story is an all too common scenario as many vulnerable veterans who had previously avoided homelessness spiral down into a life on the streets and in shelters. While there is debate about the exact numbers, it appears that roughly 15-20% of the 650,000 homeless people in America are military veterans. And, while they tend to be older, single men, there are now many returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans-men and women, sometimes with families-who are becoming homeless. We know that often there is a long time lapse between discharge and homelessness, making it reasonable to expect far more homelessness in the next 10 years among this generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Federal Support for Eliminating Veteran Homelessness
Until very recently, homelessness among our veterans has been largely ignored. To his credit, President Obama has staked out an aggressive goal of ending veteran homelessness in America by 2015. A noble objective, but one not easily achieved. An historical disconnect between the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (“VA”) has meant that soldiers exiting the military were neither adequately screened for mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression nor properly connected with necessary VA support services after they re-entered civilian life.
Moreover, the VA historically has disclaimed any expertise or ability to be involved in housing solutions for homeless veterans (passing that responsibility to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). In addition, until recently, the VA followed outdated treatment models that often resulted in our neediest veterans being denied effective services. Our homeless veterans-and especially our Vietnam-era veterans-have been poorly served for many decades.
But, thankfully, much progress has been made in the last few years under the leadership of General Shinseki at the VA. The senior leadership of the VA has endorsed many of the best practices in the field, including permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless veterans. It also has worked hard to align local VA medical centers with these best practices. It has been a slow and frustrating process, but there is now widespread recognition of the critical importance of stable housing to the provision of effective services for many veterans.
Philanthropy Has a Responsibility to Get Involved
To the discredit of our own sector, philanthropy has played a negligible role in helping to solve veteran homelessness. There are only a handful of foundations around the country that have meaningfully and consistently funded work targeting veteran homelessness, and there has been little philanthropic collaboration with the leaders in the public and private sectors who are making progress in this area. As funders, we share the societal disgrace of abandoning our nation’s neediest veterans.
One of the goals of Funders Together to End Homelessness is to do a better job of engaging philanthropists around the country and the resources we can bring to bear on this issue in a more substantive and sustained way. Poetry may help the veteran I mentioned earlier maintain his hope and faith, but it won’t end his homelessness. We know what will: access to dignified housing and the services and supports he needs to help him remain in his home. We owe him and other homeless veterans at least that much.
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.