SOLUTIONS/DONOVAN: Ending Homelessness Among Returning War Veterans

For the past four decades, Americans have tried unsuccessfully to cure the social ill of modern homelessness by treating its symptoms rather than its causes. A severe lack of affordable housing and a scarceness of jobs that pay a living wage are the root causes of homelessness. But, failing a final solution-based strategy to ending homelessness, we're now assigning rank-and-resources within a hierarchy of needs and conditions, measured along a compassion scale of those who are deserving, less-deserving and undeserving.

Efforts over the past eight years to reduce one of the most visible signs of America's poverty — chronic homelessness — have been moderately successful. But the ultimate and important goal of abolishing chronic homelessness, as a tipping point to ending all homelessness, has not been reached. So like many illnesses, chronic homelessness, as a social ill, will have its symptoms wane, its cures will lessen and attention will be paid elsewhere. And like most illnesses, the symptoms will re-emerge stronger and more resistant.

The newest campaign against homelessness is focused on homeless veterans. At a recent Veterans Affairs national conference, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced: President Obama and I are personally committed to ending homelessness among veterans within the next five years. Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope.

This year, the VA will spend $3.2 billion to prevent and reduce homelessness among veterans, with as much as $500 million going to homeless programs and $2.5 billion to medical services. This commitment represents a 23 percent increase over last year's funding and a six times greater increase for residential care. The VA also is attempting to strengthen its ability to prevent veteran homelessness by offering grants to organizations providing supportive services for low-income veterans and their families.

The administration's commitment to zero tolerance for homeless veterans is admirable and necessary. The VA's commitment of resources is considerable and unprecedented. But if this commitment is to truly be a final and lasting solution to veterans' homelessness, it must be increased to meet the scale and breadth of tomorrow's problem.

The daily count of homeless veterans is approximately 150,000. But the demographics communicate an equally important message: Homeless veterans tend to be middle-aged. So today's homeless veterans don't include most of the 36,000 recent soldiers wounded in action and the countless thousands who carry the psychological impacts of war.

If this administration and this country are to remain committed to zero tolerance for homeless veterans, we must face the difficult reality that prioritizing one group of homeless over another is an unsuccessful strategy. If today's housed soldiers are to remain tomorrow's housed veterans, we must end all homelessness.

We, as a nation, can achieve the goal of ending homelessness in our lifetime by focusing attention and resources on all those who need and lack affordable housing and living-wage jobs. This goal will have its challenges, not the least of which will be to resist a tendency to divide the homeless into competing subpopulations: young vs. old, individual vs. family, chronic vs. episodic, mental illness vs. substance abuse, veteran vs. non-veteran, and on and on.

The theory behind subdividing the homeless rests upon the assumption that finite resources can only work to cure a limited social ill. This divide-and-conquer mindset, in the 1990s, led us to eight years of directing new resources toward the chronically homeless, in part to the exclusion of others experiencing homelessness.

Our time waiting for soldiers to return from war will be well spent if we are about the shared goal of protecting and defending our country. Protecting those least among us from the inhumane conditions of persistent poverty and defending their right to housing.

Adam Butler celebrated Thanksgiving in a shelter not far from the U.S. Capitol, grateful for a warm meal and the generous support of those around him. He's now short-listed for a housing voucher targeted for homeless veterans and their families, a process that's taken the better part of a year.

Today, what concerns Adam most is the thought of leaving his friends at the shelter behind. His military service was a sacrifice he willingly made for this country and all Americans. A sacrifice, he believes, that should be honored by ending the homelessness of every American — once and for all … and for that he will be forever thankful.

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