Today’s guest post is from Geoff Millard, director of special projects at the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, a service provider based in D.C. Millard spent 9 years in the U.S. military, including 13 months in Iraq.
September 11, 2001, is a day that will “live in infamy” for my generation, just as Pearl Harbor does for the generation who lived through World War II. This is especially true for those of us who were serving in the military at the time. As most Americans watched with shock and horror as the second plane hit the twin towers, I was driving towards my unit in the New York Army National Guard, already knowing that I was activated.
As the rest of the military readied itself for war in the days following 9/11, I helped secure what became known as “ground zero”. I would soon be readying myself for war too. And war…well, that’s exactly what we got for the next 11-plus years.
The wars Iraq and Afghanistan permanently changed an entire generation of veterans. More than 2.5 million served in combat zones, and more have served at bases across the globe. This generation of service members is now being discharged and becoming veterans. An influx of 2.5 million people would stress any system, let alone one as severely underfunded as the Department of Veterans Affairs historically has been.
Still, the Obama Administration has, for the first time, taken on the task of ending veteran homelessness. It is such a powerful proposal that, in what is possibly the most gridlocked Congress in history, this idea has bipartisan support, true bipartisan support – not the two-votes-from-the-other-side-type bipartisan support often touted on The Hill.
While this effort must focus on the bulk of the problem, homelessness among the generation of veterans who served in the Vietnam era, we are planning new and innovative ways of meeting the needs of Afghanistan- and Iraq-era veterans. Take, for example, the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, which just passed at $300 million for FY13.
Because so few of my generation of veterans require permanent help, the program is designed to get veterans back into housing soon after they become homeless, and meet the needs of veterans who need short-term help to avoid homelessness. This program is a critical component in our strategy to end veteran homelessness. It really could be the safety net that prevents another generation of veterans from struggling with homelessness for the rest of their lives.
The SSVF program is modeled after the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), which the National Alliance to End Homelessness credits for the 1 percent nationwide drop in overall homelessness during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
VA officials intend to use the prevention component of SSVF to ensure that another generation of veterans won’t face the prospect of living on the streets for any period of time, while they intend to use the rapid rehousing component to ensure that veterans who do experience homelessness have resources to return to permanent housing as quickly as possible.
The more time a person spends living on the street, the worse the problems that got that person there get. The effects of street living take a toll on one’s physical health as well as one’s mental health, and increases the likelihood of self-medication through drugs and alcohol. By getting people back into housing fast, we can preserve their health and humanity.
The SSVF program also includes a new component for VA: families. Traditionally, VA has offered homeless services only to the veterans themselves, turning away veteran families who were in need of services. At Friendship Place, one our top concerns for our program is reuniting participants with their families; this is true for veterans and non-veterans alike.
When our nation was in shock and fear, a new generation of service men and women answered the call to protect the nation. Their selflessness has earned them a great debt from this country that we must pay if we are to remain a light for the world in dark times. VA officials have an actual plan to end veteran homelessness that has a real chance at success. The question that remains is whether we are prepared to see it through to the end, and fund it in full.
The photo above, which shows Geoff Millard with VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, is courtesy of the Friendship Place. For more information on Friendship Place please visit www.FriendshipPlaceDC.org.