It might disappoint you, as it does me, to learn that in America, one-fifth of the homeless population is composed of veterans of war, with approximately 107,000 homeless veterans sleeping on the street each night. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that in 2009, more than 136,000 homeless veterans entered emergency shelters — and that figure doesn’t even include homeless vets who didn’t enter a shelter.
There are roughly 23.8 million living veterans in our country. More than 4.3 million of those veterans have a family income of less than $20,000. Some 45% of homeless veterans report needing help finding a job and 37% need assistance finding housing.
Considering President Obama’s pledge to return 33,000 troops by the end of the year, there is cause for concern regarding the quality of civilian life many veterans will experience. Recent stories of homeless veterans underscore the immediate need for improved services for veterans as they return from their tours of duty. An integrated service approach like HELP USA’s that combines safe, quality housing, on-site professional case management, day care, employment and counseling services, as well as strong national and regional partnerships with the VA, is a proven solution for homeless and at-risk veterans.
Public – private partnerships are needed to accelerate the inventory of housing development and service delivery. HELP USA has pledged to develop over 1,000 new units of permanent supportive housing for male and female war veterans over the course of a three year period. The corporate sector’s generous response to the needs of service men and women, combined with ongoing government support, and such initiatives by nonprofit service providers is critical to address the needs of veterans returning from war.
The VA is wisely investing in homeless prevention programs which will address the needs of service women and men who are at risk of marginal living circumstances upon return to their home communities. Veterans need easily-accessible pre- employment skills including job readiness and skill training for market driven jobs. Specialized job training programs, such as HELP USA’s Security Training School and Culinary Arts training, have generated livable wages for hundreds of homeless women and men.
We have learned from the challenges experienced by female veterans who have returned from tours on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan that many young families struggle to maintain independent housing and find livable income jobs. A key VA report warned “female veterans and young veterans are at high risk of becoming homeless, and both groups are growing within the overall veteran population.” Many female veterans return from war service with mental health issues, having experienced sexual abuse and trauma during military service. Shedding light on the challenges facing women in the military, the Department of Veteran Affairs states that one out of every five female veterans report experiencing Military Sexual Trauma during service. Housing to address these needs should be developed, such as HELP USA’s specialized housing for female veterans opened in Philadelphia in 2010.
The tragic personal accounts of thousands of young men and women who have served their country and returned to marginal living conditions and unemployment is a call to action for the public and private sectors. We invite you to enlist with HELP to help provide homes and jobs for America’s veterans.
Maria Cuomo Cole is the Chairwoman of HELP USA and Leading Advocate for the Homeless, Veterans, Victims of Domestic Violence and At-Risk Youth