12/21/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Remembering Homeless Veterans at the Holidays

They're still there: the homeless. In doorways, in the parks, on the streets, under bridges, on vacant  land. Every day of the year.

In 2007, USA Today reported that 1 in 4 homeless were veterans. Now that figure is down but we still have a ways to go. The big problem is still lack of beds, but there are other issues that make it difficult for the homeless to return to society as productive citizens.

We make certain assumptions about the homeless that are not always true. For example, you can be homeless and employed, especially in large urban areas where housing costs are high.  Scraping together a first and last month's rent is often impossible on an entry level salary.  In a tough economy like we've had recently, entry level jobs are often the only ones available, and even then they're scarce.

In order to get into many shelters, you need to be in line in the afternoon for the available beds.  If you're working, and many homeless are, that's not going to happen. Also, many shelters won't take homeless who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  While this is an understandable policy, it turns away people who need shelter.  Similarly, many homeless have a dog or another pet as a companion; homeless women often have a dog for protection. Since shelters don't allow pets, these homeless often prefer the streets so they don't have to leave their companions.

Other problems in shelters include drug activity that makes them unsafe, or health conditions like bed bugs and body lice, not to mention hepatitis and tuberculosis.  Here's one that might surprise you: shoe theft.  Having shoes is critical if you're homeless.  And if you've got shoes but they don't fit, you've got another boatload of problems. Still it's marginally better than not having any shoes at all.

Sliding into homelessness can and does happen to well-intentioned, deserving people. Once the decline sets in, it's hard to turn around.  I'd be the first to say that men and women veterans who volunteered to put themselves in harm's way for this country qualify as well-intentioned and deserving. 

Perhaps, in addition to adding more facilities, we should be working to prevent veteran homelessness altogether. The first few weeks and months of the transition out of combat back into civilian life set the stage for what happens next.  That's why it's so important that our returning vets have access to the care they need right away, medical and mental health care especially. Waiting a year or more for your VA claim to be processed so your benefits kick in can be like a sentence.  For vets returning to school, not receiving your benefit check in a timely manner can not only sour initiative and ambition, but make it impossible for you to continue.

As with a lot of things, preventing problems is more cost-effective in the long run.  In this case it's also humane. Let's be the nation we want to be.  Let's take care of our veterans and their families when they need it most.