(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.
One of my pet peeves – ok, my biggest peeve – is that government doesn’t understand it’s role in society. In particular, one of the overarching themes I find disturbing is how government thinks it knows how best to serve the citizenry. The reality is that government, even when it means well, generally manages to get things wrong. Bureaucrats being bureaucrats, the law of unintended consequences is never taken into account. People’s lives are destroyed in a sort of “collateral damage.”
It doesn’t only happen at the Federal level, where the Great Society ushered in the era of society-killing programs. (Think how many families end up dissolving so the mother can receive food stamps). No, it happens all the way down to the local level. Consider the case of the Lakewood (NJ) “Tent City.” I realize most of you reading this have no idea what I’m talking about, so here’s a little background. In 2006, before the Great Recession hit the nation as a whole, Ocean County experienced a dramatic increase in the homeless population. A largely rural area where the principle economic driver is tourism, there are neither facilities nor public funds available to assist the homeless. The nearest homeless shelter is located in Atlantic City; they don’t have the ability to house people except in the short-term and most of their resources are dedicated to the types of problems found in inner-city homeless populations (things like rampant drug and alcohol abuse, for instance). A local pastor, Steve Brigham of the Lakewood Outreach Ministry, saw a need in his community and took action. With a few tents set up in the woods, the Lakewood Tent City was born. With no public funding, Pastor Steve has established a community that at times has housed as many as 76 people. The rules are simple and direct: no drugs, no alcohol, everyone pitches in and everyone has to be actively looking for work (or working).
Why local government feels the need to get involved in this ministry is still an open question. The tent city is located in the woods and doesn’t infringe on anyone’s property rights. Nor is it located on public parklands or other facilities. The town has attempted several time to evict the campers, with the most recent rejection of their efforts coming earlier today. Their court pleadings have included the usual, such as health and safety concerns. Yet, by all accounts, this hasn’t been an issue at the tent city – as opposed to most of the “Occupy” encampments from this past fall. No, I suspect the real issue here is that a sole individual used a bit of initiative and with a few hundred dollars of private fundraising accomplished something the county said for years it couldn’t: established a viable homeless shelter. No, it’s far from an ideal solution. These are still tents pitched in the woods, without electricity, running water or heat. But it has provided a sense of community and support for those people that would otherwise fall through the cracks.
And I wasn’t kidding about a few hundred dollars in private donations. A perfect example is Heather Skolsky, who became involved after her cousin stayed at the tent city in 2006. (He now lives in New York and works for the Salvation Army). Her first fundraising effort yielded about $300, a few blankets and other supplies. This weekend she’s organized a benefit concert. These are the types of results that government can’t seem to replicate – and remains dedicated to stopping.
So, what can you do? For starters, look around your own communities. Odds are, you’ll find similar organizations in need of help and under assault from local officials. Of course, if you want to help out Pastor Steve in his mission, you can click here to give a donation. If you’re in the Lakewood area, you can always stop by to lend a hand. And if you’re interested in attending the benefit, I’ve included those details below.
The point is this: too often we’ve forgotten the meaning behind JFK’s inaugural address in 1961. While we all remember the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” the reality is that the socialist left still prefers government action to citizen initiatives. In the process, they’ve made programs like the Lakewood Tent City persona non grata in the eyes of the public – even though they create far better results at far less cost than similar government programs. Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you that government assistance programs are “needed.”
To attend the Lakewood Tent City Benefit tomorrow night:
High Velocity Sports Bar, Rte 166, Beachwood NJ
Doors open 9:30pm. Cash bar, cash donations and/or donations of winter camping gear. For more info, call 732-600-7432 or email Laurens72882@comcast.net