Our minds have always been "aware" of the homelessness "problem" in America.
Many of us become more "aware" of it during the Christmas season as our hearts, too, become "aware" of the true spirit of the holiday season.
I became especially "aware" of homelessness in America when my wife and I, one Saturday morning in May 2011, volunteered at a local church to serve breakfast to some of the 4,000 homeless people in the Austin, Texas, area.
My wife and I were helping a wonderful group of volunteers who had been, for many years, lending a hand, lending an ear, opening their hearts to provide some relief to their less fortunate neighbors.
I wrote about our guests then:
"As to the appearance, race, national origin, behavior, whatever, of our guests? They were a microcosm of America. They were polite, quiet, appreciative. Most important, they were like you and me, except that they have fallen on hard times. Some were veterans, 'one could tell.'"
Why did I mention that some were veterans?
Well, that Saturday happened to be part of Memorial Day weekend, a weekend to salute, thank and honor our veterans -- those who have departed us and those who are still with us.
But, what kind of thanks is it when at the time of that breakfast an estimated 76,000 veterans were homeless in America, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness? Included in this number are thousands of combat veterans from our most recent wars: Iraq and Afghanistan.
What kind of honor is it when some of those homeless veterans were literally dying on the streets of America?
While I have been lamenting this shameful stain on our American fabric, Mark Dowie, from Point Reyes Station, Calif., said it poignantly and powerfully in a simple, 29 words letter to The New York Times editor just before Veterans Day 2011: "'Homeless veteran' should be a cultural oxymoron. The mere thought of it is profane. What kind of civil society leaves its defenders on winter streets, even for one night?"
As recently as July 2012, I wrote:
"Although the number of homeless veterans has fallen in the last few years, still, on any given night right now, roughly 68,000 veterans are homeless in the United States and within that number, a group of at least 14,000 have been homeless for a year, according to The New York Times."
But today, five months later, some encouraging news.
The Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) today announced that a new national report shows that homelessness among veterans has been reduced by approximately 7 percent between January 2011 and January 2012.
The VA news release continues:
"The 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, prepared by HUD, estimates there were 62,619 homeless Veterans on a single night in January in the United States, a 7.2 percent decline since 2011 and a 17.2 percent decline since 2009. The AHAR reports on the extent and nature of homelessness in America. Included in the report is the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which measures the number of homeless persons in the U.S. on a single night in January 2012, including the number of homeless veterans."
If this trend continues, the Obama Administration should meet its goal of ending Veteran homelessness in 2015, says the VA.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said, "While this is encouraging news, we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no Veteran has to sleep on the street."
The VA news release adds:
"VA also announced the availability of $300 million in grants for community organizations, estimated to serve approximately 70,000 Veterans and their family members facing homelessness. The deadline for applying to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, a homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing program, is Feb. 1, 2013.
SSVF grants promote housing stability among homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. The grants can have an immediate impact, helping lift Veterans out of homelessness or providing aid in emergency situations that put Veterans and their families at risk of homelessness.
Through September 2012, SSVF has aided approximately 21,500 Veterans and over 35,000 individuals. Since SSVF is able to help the Veteran's family, 8,826 children were also assisted, helping Veterans keep their families housed and together. Grantees provide a range of supportive services to very low-income Veteran families living in or transitioning to permanent housing, including case management, legal assistance, financial counseling, transportation, child care, rent, utilities and other services aimed at preventing homelessness."
It may not be possible to totally end veterans homelessness by 2015. However, our collective awareness of this national disgrace, along with what hopefully are earnest administration efforts, should take our country a long way towards ending this "cultural oxymoron."
For more information on the availability of SSVF funds, visit www.va.gov/homeless/ssvf.asp.