Today’s guest blog comes from Steve Berg, Vice President of Programs and Policy at the Alliance.
Since the early 1980s, America has been turning away from homeless veterans. When widespread homelessness emerged, veterans who had served in Vietnam or in the years after were already overrepresented among homeless people. Instead of an outcry and demand for an immediate solution, however, there was hand wringing, a few programs, but mostly no response.
As a boy, I grew up watching the Vietnam war and public reaction to the war on TV. I was 18 when the last ten Marines were helicoptered off the roof of the embassy in Saigon in early 1975.
What I remember most is the anger and hatred between Americans, and especially toward the young men a few years older than me – men I admired and looked up to growing up and entering adulthood, every one of whom had to make a hard decision about how to deal with the war.
Some young men went to Vietnam and did everything they could to keep their colleagues safe from harm, risking their own lives on a daily basis. Many more went and did their jobs more or less efficiently, with enthusiasm or indifference or loathing. Some went and thought only about staying out of harm’s way.
Regardless of their actions, what all of them faced upon returning was something we all know and regret now: protests and criticism and disapproval from people who were sick of the war and thought that the young men and women who had served in the military were part of the problem.
By the 1980s, most Americans wanted to forget Vietnam, and particularly wanted to forget the conflict and anger that we felt toward each other. It turned out to be pretty easy, when faced with homelessness among veterans, to blame it on the war, assume that someone else would take care of it, and turn away.
Thirty years later and we find ourselves in a nearly identical situation – new wars but the same controversy.
And still, the number of homeless veterans from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is going up. Open, widespread outrage over this fact does not appear to be forthcoming. Homelessness among Vietnam veterans grew year after year, well after the war was over; will we see more homeless veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom in the decades to come?
Will our country turn away from our veterans once again?
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki says no. A year ago he called together a national summit on veteran homelessness, and declared his commitment to end homelessness for veterans in five years.
In the year since his announcement, General Shinseki has proven to people inside and outside VA that the promise was far from empty. Under his leadership, the VA has changed the way they approach veterans homelessness; the department has embraced tested, practical tools like permanent supportive housing, homelessness prevention strategies, and rapid re-housing.
Behind all these changes is one steadfast, unyielding principle: no veteran deserves to be homeless.
We at the Alliance stand with General Shinseki. We know the work that lies ahead, but the time is right. Never before has the promise of an end to veteran homelessness been so within our reach.
We will not make the same mistakes with the new generation of veterans that we did with an earlier generation. This time, we will face the problem squarely, we will not turn away, we will allow our nation’s heroes to return with dignity and to our gratitude. And maybe if we can do that, we can rectify some of those earlier mistakes in the process.