I had no idea what I was signing up for when I went undercover to spend nine days on Skid Row, the famed 50-square block area in downtown Los Angeles area with highest concentration of homeless people in the country, and where I had to beg for money to eat crap, sleep in a tent on a street infested with cat-sized rats at night. I just hoped that my documentary, Skid Row, would stir up some dialogue of what I learned -- that homelessness is a condition, not a disease.
Back then, I didn't really know how to solve this growing problem of homelessness in our society. I merely wanted people to understand how deep the situation is. There were always poor people, but the disparity between the rich and the poor has become more extreme. When there are more people going into poverty, the next step is homelessness. You think the homeless are all lazy or crazy, but it's not the case. It was shocking to discover how many regular people had ended up on Skid Row, because something tragic happened to them, or as a result of pure bad luck.
I couldn't have been more encouraged when a New York-based nonprofit, Community Solutions, announced last week that 238 communities across America participating in their 100,000 Homes Campaign have permanently housed 101,628 homeless Americans, including 31,171 homeless veterans. This is an impressive feat, accomplished a month ahead of their four-year July deadline, that apparently saves taxpayers $1.3 billion. I'm very optimistic about their new campaign, "Zero: 2016," which they'll be launching next year to coordinate a national effort aimed to help communities get to zero on chronic and veteran homelessness.
It's noteworthy that President Barack Obama has made combating veteran homelessness a top priority in his administration, with the latest numbers released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs showing a 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010. Yet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are almost 58,000 vets without a roof over their heads on any given night. Obviously, we have more work to do.
This was always something that outraged me -- every time I ran into a veteran in Skid Row, I found it morally reprehensible that those who fought to defend our freedom would return home, and become homeless. As first lady Michelle Obama put it: "When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he has to sleep on it."
That's why I'm excited about the Mayors' Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, which is the new initiative being pushed by the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden to push state and local leaders to meet the President's goal to eradicate veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. It already has gained commitment from 77 mayors, but with more than 1,351 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, we're falling pretty short.
It's painfully ironic and embarrassing that the greatest and wealthiest country in the world has more than 600,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. Seven out of 10 Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless; sure, we might not be able to end homelessness altogether. Nonetheless, seeing how much progress and momentum have been built nationwide, I'm joining the effort and inviting everyone to do what we can (and should) to work together in our cities to end homelessness in America -- at the very least for those who served to protect our nation so we can all sleep in peace at night.