Honoring Homeless Veterans
(Author’s note: I originally published this post in November, 2014. Now that the Northeast Corridor is bracing for the first major storm of this winter season, it seemed a good time to remind everyone that the problem hasn’t gone away)
On any given night, some 50,000 veterans end up spending the night outdoors or in a homeless shelter. Additionally, there are estimates that as many as 1.4 million veterans are at risk of becoming homeless.
In a nation where politicians trip over themselves to prove how much they care about veterans, this should be impossible. Yet the facts are what they are. Men and women who’ve sacrificed years of their lives in defense of their country often find themselves reduced to begging for scraps of food and a bit of shelter. The reasons for veteran homelessness mirror those in the general population: mental health issues, substance abuse and just plain bad luck top the list. But if any subset of the population has earned the privilege of not freezing on a winter’s night, veterans should.
The VA, for all of its shortcomings, actually does a reasonable job of trying to care for homeless veterans. But funding remains an issue. For instance, there is the VASH-HUD program, which provides homeless veterans with housing vouchers and community support (such as job assistance and counseling). It has proven to be one of the best homeless programs in the country with less than 5% of the veterans accepted returning to homelessness within 5 years.
For FY2014, VA was granted funding to assist 78 homeless veterans in New Jersey. 78. For the entire year. I can go to Military Park in Newark and find 78 homeless veterans.
But there is a solution, and one that would actually save the government money in the process. All across the United States, sequestration and other budget cuts have resulted in hundreds of military bases being closed. They sit, abandoned, awaiting a government auction where the property will be sold for pennies on the dollar. In New Jersey, Fort Monmouth sits abandoned, falling into disrepair while the former megabase of Fort Dix/Lakehurst Naval Air Station/McGuire AFB occupies 10 1/2 square miles in the New Jersey Pinelands, struggling to find a purpose after the 1991 base closures. Today, it is used a training area for National Guard and reserve units, with a federal prison and aircraft maintenance wing. Fort Monmouth once housed 21,00 troops; Dix-McGuire 27,000. On both bases, the buildings sit, more intact than less.
The proposal is this: turn a portion of either base (and the dozens more around the country) into a Veteran’s Homeless Prevention and Community Reintegration Center. Rather than hiring outside contractors to maintain the buildings, grounds, power stations and the like, assign those jobs to the veteran population living there. That would solve two problems that are often at the heart of veteran homelessness: a lack of civilian job skills (infantryman isn’t exactly a skillset required on Main Street) and providing a sense of purpose. Rather than requiring the VA to provide follow-up care on veteran’s scattered throughout the state, they would be centrally located: a VA clinic could be opened there, proving treatment for medical and mental health issues. Finally, rather than spending up to $25,000/year in housing vouchers per veteran, the government would roll that money into a facility it already owns.
Everyone wins. Homeless veterans find shelter, camaraderie, purpose, services and the opportunity to reclaim their lives. The government honors its promise to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.” And our nation’s citizens can rest easy in their beds at night, knowing that no veteran needs to sleep on a sidewalk.