Some wore a military veteran's cap. Others donned full uniforms decorated with pins and patches highlighting their service to our country. They stood at perfect attention during the pledge of allegiance. They were certainly "The Few, The Proud."
I felt out of place at a California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVets) Conference in the Los Angeles Police Academy dining hall. I was not a decorated war hero, and not a veteran. I had never even played with toy guns as a child. But, I was asked to speak to these honored guests about the sad state of homelessness among our nation's war veterans.
My only connection to America's veterans, which I shared with the group, was my father. He was drafted at a young age into the U.S. Army infantry during America's World War II efforts to protect Europe. When I was young, I did not hear any John Wayne-type war stories of my father's experience.
The only evidence of my family's military experience was the few .30-06 rifles hidden in the rafters of our garage. It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized the war experience of my father's young adult years haunted him for the rest of his life. Even though he had earned a PhD in Physics, and became a university professor, he struggled with addictions, relationships, and mental health.
I realized, then, why so many veterans in this country end up on our streets. In Los Angeles, 15 percent of the homeless population are veterans who have succumbed to homelessness. The street outreach workers that work for my agencies state that, of the homeless people they see, 20 percent are veterans. That means the men and women who fought in our wars are overrepresented on our streets.
The stories I hear from outreach workers are heartbreaking. They see homeless encampments along the Los Angeles drainage system, up in the hills of Hollywood, and near the beach. They see encampments filled with all homeless veterans, hidden deep into the crevices of Los Angeles, off the grid. They are afraid to access veterans services and feel more comfortable hidden from society.
This is such a national disgrace. We throw teenagers and twenty-year-olds onto the front lines of battle, some for more than a handful of tours of duty, and they return to our country emotionally scarred for life.
Rather than being "The Few", homeless vets are "The Many." Rather than being "The Proud", many hurting veterans on our streets are sadly the "The Broken."
How do we ensure that veterans who fall onto our streets truly become "The Few" and the "The Proud" again? How do we bring them back onto a grid of connectedness through caring services and permanent housing?
The State of California's Veterans Administration appears to be working hard to answer such difficult questions. For years, CalVets has linked integrated health care with permanent housing. This linkage happens to be a national trend today.
Under the leadership of acting-Secretary Rocky Chavez, CalVets is also streamlining an admission process, reducing a bureaucratic 27 page admission form to one page. They are also building more homes for older veterans.
My father spent the last years of his life in a CalVets Veterans Home in Chula Vista. He was one of the lucky ones who had a family that surrounded him, and a link to veterans services and housing. He never went off the grid of society.
The mantra for homeless veterans in this country should be "The Few and The Proud" again.
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