THE BLOG
01/08/2015 03:25 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

"No Place Like Home for the Holidays..."

A lyric heard in elevators, markets and malls probably since last Thanksgiving. But an impossible dream if you’re among the chronically homeless.  Statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in July of 2014, showed that over one million people were homeless, and 40% of those were U.S. military veterans. This is not to say progress hasn’t been made.  An August report from HUD, states that homelessness has declined 33% since 2010.  In 2014 the VA spent $1.4 billion on efforts to help house homeless vets, and that investment has made a difference. This shows what can be done when we focus on a problem.

Typically, the homeless population is measured by the number of requests for service, the number of shelter beds occupied, etc.  But even where shelters are available, there are not enough beds to serve everyone in need, especially in large urban areas like Los Angeles. People line up early in the day to get a space in a shelter. When the beds are filled, those still in line are turned away.

Published statistics like those above don’t include these uncounted homeless: people who don’t use these services or who don’t have access to them. Many of these homeless people are veterans. I call them the invisible ones. 

The National Veterans Foundation outreach van is constantly on the lookout for these invisible homeless veterans under bridges, in vacant lots, along freeway ramps, in industrial areas.  Considering veterans’ training and experience, it’s not surprising how innovative these folks can be—improvising shelters, scavenging for cast-offs from the rest of us.  Recently our Outreach Team discovered an encampment alongside a busy freeway leading to the Port of Los Angeles.  You have to look carefully to see it.  Thousands of drivers pass by without noticing the low profile, the blue tarps and lean-to’s, even the one flying the Stars and Stripes.

What’s more challenging is that this group of homeless vets is constantly on the move.  Encampments crop up, little communities of vets which, when discovered, disband or are forced to vacate as law officials move in to clear them out.  So they move from bridge to overpass to empty lot to parking garage and the whole cycle repeats. It makes me think of a group of nomads.  Authorities round them up and tell them to move along.

Gale Holland, writing for the Los Angeles Times on December 15, quotes one of these homeless, “ ‘They tell us to leave, but they never tell us where to go.’

This is not a new story.  I’ve been witnessing it over the last 40-plus years, since I first started working with veterans on the streets of Los Angeles.  There was a huge encampment of Vietnam vets on the Santa Monica pier before it was renovated and another one hidden deeply in the hills above Santa Barbara.  We’ve made a lot of progress, especially recently, as July’s report shows. But the invisible homeless are still in urban areas and in wildernesses. Just “moving the herd” is not a solution.  I think forty years is long enough to wait for the problem to go away.  Let’s put that on the top of the list for 2015. Let’s take that 33% of veteran homeless right down to single digits.  Like, maybe, zero.

If you know a veteran who needs help, please pass along our LifeLine for Vets number: 888.777.4443.