Since 2011, the number of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are either homeless or in some form of federal program aimed at keeping them off the streets has nearly tripled.
Despite the hundreds of millions ($300 million to be exact) the federal government devotes to this issue — up from $60 million in 2011 — the numbers continue to climb.
Some experts site multiple deployments in combat zones, something many veterans from previous conflicts didn’t have to endure, as one of the primary causes.
Others cite the bad economy and the perception that all veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress or some other form of mental health issue as reasons that are preventing Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans from landing jobs – which in turn drives veterans to the streets.
The VA stated “a lack of affordable housing has contributed to veteran homelessness.”
Arizona, which is one state that has claimed title to one out every five homeless individuals being veterans, has been combating homelessness through an approach called Housing First. They get veterans into housing first, then work on the issues – not the other way around, which tends to be the norm.
Providing veterans affordable housing has some merit. According to a recent article in the NY Times, “A 2009 analysis commissioned by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which handles the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, found that the monthly cost of housing and supportive services for one person was $605, while the public costs of a person living on the streets were roughly $2,900 a month.”
But one can only build and sustain so many houses – and how do you make a program like this work in the big cities where affordable housing really isn’t an option? These are just a couple of the questions being raised as the federal government issues grants to more than 300 community groups that target homeless veterans.
It is time to be proactive and not just reactive. Providing housing, mediation services to keep veterans in their homes, assistance with rent and utilities, child care and transportation all serve a purpose – but these are “reactive” services – and yes, I’ll admit, Operation Military Family Cares does provide “gap emergency funds” to our veterans when appropriate.
But the key – the ANSWER – is creating in the hearts and minds of our transitioning veterans a new sense of mission and purpose – an action plan tied with a support network – and you start months before transition making this happen. Not after transition.
Want to really solve homelessness? Start with a new sense of mission and purpose. I’m not discounting some of the mental health issues – but not all veterans face these issues. I’m talking about a tactical plan, not just strategic.
Bottom line: a previous president once said that “the best social program was a job.” True. And in addition, history has shown and proven that when the vision and purpose held by an individual is so big the circumstances don’t matter.
Let’s start with mission and purpose.
– By Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.