THE BLOG
11/11/2013 06:00 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

To Truly Honor Our Veterans, Let's Start With Stable Homes

More than 62,000 U.S. veterans are homeless on a given night -- and that's 62,000 too many.

In 2004, when U.S. Army Specialist En Sheng "Anderson" Lin returned home from Afghanistan, his life appeared to be on the right track. He finished his associate's degree, landed a job as a hospice nurse in his hometown of Los Angeles and became a proud homeowner for the first time.

A few years later, his luck turned.

When the economy tanked in 2008, Anderson lost his job. Shortly thereafter he lost his home to a short sale. He soon found himself living out of his car, asking friends to "crash on their curbs," as he put it in an interview.

The stress of homelessness took a toll on Anderson. "Everything came back at once... the mental issues that I hadn't addressed," he said, adding that he "blocked everything out" after coming home from Afghanistan. At his lowest point, he was using alcohol and drugs, dealing with frequent bouts of anxiety and depression and having trouble controlling his anger.

"I thought I was finished, that I had no chance," he said. "I didn't know what to do."

Today Anderson is celebrating Veterans Day in his new studio apartment. Last month he moved into New Directions Sepulveda, an affordable apartment building for formerly homeless veterans in California's San Fernando Valley. The building, which was developed by A Community of Friends and New Directions for Veterans, is one of the first in the country to be built on land that's owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

New Directions Sepulveda is a permanent supportive housing program, which connects affordable housing with on-site medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment. Studies have shown that permanent supportive housing is the most cost-effective way to keep disabled veterans off the streets by helping them find the specific services they need. The program is funded through a medley of private and public sources, including Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers.

Today Anderson refers to his new home -- his first since the short sale -- as a "safety net." He attends weekly counseling sessions to help him manage his anger and other mental health issues, as well as regular meetings to work through his history of substance abuse. With his newfound stability, Anderson is on the hunt for a part-time job and planning to re-enroll in college next fall, with hopes of studying accounting.

Anderson's story is all too common in our country -- a service member that returned home from active duty, had difficulty coping with civilian life and gradually slipped through the cracks of the existing support system. More than 62,000 veterans sleep on the street or in homeless shelters on a given night.

There are several factors that put veterans at increased risk of homelessness, including disproportionately high rates of substance abuse, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and sexual trauma -- particularly for female veterans -- making it difficult to maintain a job or keep up with rent or mortgage payments.

This is especially true for veterans like Anderson who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Research shows that they are more likely to become homeless, tend to become homeless more quickly after discharge, are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD or substance abuse disorders and are more likely to be unemployed compared to veterans who served in other conflicts.

It's worth noting that the scale of the problem has decreased in recent years, in part because of a cross-agency pledge from the Obama administration to end veterans' homelessness by 2015. In the two years since that plan was put into action, the country's population of homeless veterans has dropped by an estimated 18 percent.

But the work is far from over, and current resources allocated to the problem fall well short of the need. Experts say that meeting the administration's goal would require billions of additional federal dollars and a long-term commitment to programs that focus on the roots of veterans' homelessness, namely mental illness, substance abuse and unemployment.

For example, this year the VASH program has enough funding to provide rental assistance to roughly 10,000 veterans, less than one-sixth of the total population of homeless veterans. To put the program's budget in perspective, for each Abrams Tank the government plans to purchase this year, we could take an additional 1,000 veterans off the streets or out of homeless shelters.

To be sure, given the scale and complexity of the problem, no single solution will bring an end to veterans' homelessness. But if we can learn anything from Anderson Lin's story, it's that a stable home is a great place to start.

This Veterans Day, as we honor those who bravely served our country, let's start with a simple promise -- that we'll allocate the resources necessary to help every U.S. veteran find a safe and stable home connected to the services they need. Considering the sacrifices these men and women have made for us, it's the least that we can do in return.