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Veterans' Homelessness -- There is No Finish Line

05/22/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Vietnam, Steve Peck addressed a forum of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. It might have been four decades since American troops left Saigon, but the symposium was titled, "What Does the End of Veterans' Homelessness Look Like?"His edited remarks were as follows:

Much of what I know about homeless vets I learned as an outreach worker with the VA in the early 90's. I met a thousand different homeless vets with a thousand different stories. We had a drop-in clinic and one day a homeless vet named Emil is shown into my office. He was in his mid-fifties I'd guess and had a thick Eastern European accent. He said that for years he had been sleeping in the back of an auto repair shop thanks to the generosity of the owner.

As we spoke he was constantly scanning the room and he would look concerned every time I'd write something down. It became apparent that he was a mental health patient and had severe paranoid thoughts that were the cause of his homelessness. He trusted no one and absolutely knew someone was out to get him.

When the conversation got too personal Emil got up to leave, but I asked him to think about coming back to see me when he wanted. And he did. Over the next couple of months he would come to talk to me a couple of times a week, but every time I asked him if he would consider coming in off the street into housing, he would balk.

He would always say the same thing, "If I do that, I'll be a dead duck."

Twice I arranged for a screening at the Domiciliary at the VA. He showed up both times, tolerated the screening questions, but at the end, couldn't get himself to sign the admission form and left, much to the frustration of the Dom staff.

I convinced the Dom staff to give him another chance, and finally, working with Mental Health, we got him to the screening one more time and he agreed to come in.

Emil was not on our schedule, he was on his own and came in when he was able.

Sometimes this is what it takes and you can't put a timetable on that.

God knows where Emil is today. But his story is symbolic of the challenge we face in ending veteran homelessness.

We received the disappointing news from the latest Point in Time count that the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles has remained at about 4,000, and the number of veterans becoming homeless every day has risen from 3 to 10.

My personal belief is that on Jan. 1, 2016, we will still have homeless veterans on our streets beyond the number that is considered what is called "functional zero." My saying this doesn't mean we will work any less hard to get veterans off the street and into housing, nor does it make it any less likely that we will achieve that lofty goal.

I say it because we need to be honest with ourselves and we need to begin planning for the long fight ahead of us.

The psychic wounds caused by combat will reverberate over the coming years and in some cases lead to homelessness. Left untreated because of an overloaded VA system, these become significant systemic issues that are going to require us to reorganize our priorities if we are to solve them.

So many vets who are homeless today, or on the verge of homelessness are not seeking us out due to pride or embarrassment, or the stigma associated with admitting mental illness. The complications that lead someone down the path toward homelessness are numerous, and sometimes misunderstood.

We are dealing with a societal issue that has been long in the making and putting a five- year time limit to fix this problem is unrealistic and sets up programmatic expectations that are unrealistic and potentially detrimental in the long run.

U.S.VETS has more than 400 dedicated employees who work night and day to help homeless vets get off the street and become healthy citizens. It is good to set high expectations and it has focused a lot of attention on the task before us, but "Getting to Zero" is just the first phase of the operation.

Rather than say this is our end date, let's say we're going to throw everything we've got at it, and by December 31st, we'll have built a comprehensive system in our communities that will catch every veteran falling toward homelessness, provide him the services he needs to stabilize him or herself, then guide him back into the mainstream to succeed.

I have a different reaction to seeing homeless vets on the street than many people - it makes me mad. It makes me mad that we have a deficient system that lets people fall through the cracks, that the fabric of our society has come so unstrung that people who are falling into desperation can slide into homelessness and there's nothing out there for them to grab on to.

As is often the case, the answer to a problem of this complexity is multifaceted and there is no easy fix. A solution will force us to not only look at the homeless and the many needs they have, but at ourselves and our society and the way we live.

There is less "community" in our large metropolitan areas, and more callousness; more isolation, and more selfishness.

We have to go beyond what we know, and imagine what can be. We have to be prepared to work on this until we don't see any more homeless veterans holding up signs at freeway off-ramps; until homeless vets stop landing in jail just to have a place to sleep at night.

We have to be prepared to work on this until it's done. There is no finish line.