By Hector Villagra, Executive Director
In his convention speech last week, President Obama included few rhetorical flourishes, but one stood out. He said: “When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you've served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.” Lofty language, to be sure, but it simply highlights the gap between rhetoric and reality.
As Americans, we proudly proclaim ourselves the home of the brave, but far too many of our brave are homeless. On a given night in 2010, more than 75,000 veterans were homeless in the United States, and between October 2009 and September 2010, nearly 150,000 were homeless for at least one night. Plainly, many who have fought for this country find themselves fighting to survive when they come home.
These figures are tragic, but tell only part of the story of just how deeply we have failed our veterans. Our military veterans are much more likely to be homeless than other Americans – in 2010, veterans represented only 9.5 percent of the adult population, but as much as 16% of the adult homeless population. And our homeless veterans are more likely to develop life-threatening diseases than other homeless persons.
Our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan face clear risks that could lead to homelessness. Studies have consistently found that a high percentage of these veterans screen positive for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans returning from Iraq in particular are seeking mental health services than veterans of other wars and conflicts. We have fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “off the books,” but it’s high time we accept the responsibility and costs of caring for our veterans. Otherwise, we will leave increasing numbers of them on the streets.
While the president has committed to ending veteran homelessness by 2015, he can and should do more, starting right here in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is – inexplicably -- the nation’s homeless veterans capital, with nearly nine thousand homeless vets. I say inexplicably for one simple reason: the VA owns nearly 400 acres of land in West Los Angeles deeded to the federal government to provide a permanent home for soldiers, and the campus built on that property did just that through the 1960s. The VA could substantially reduce if not end homelessness for veterans in Los Angeles by putting this campus to its intended use. Yet, even as it has leased nearly a third of the property for athletic fields, a dog park, car rental parking, and hotel laundry, the VA currently provides no permanent or long-term housing there.
What’s worse, in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe; Ron Olson, of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP; Arnold & Porter LLP; Inner City Law Center; Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor; and Massey & Gail LLP; the VA denies that it has the authority to provide housing. This is surprising, to say the least. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has said that permanent supportive housing is the answer. Moreover, the VA is now in the process of providing permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans at another VA facility in Los Angeles. This begs the question why permanent supportive housing remains unavailable at the West LA campus.
Permanent supportive housing is the only option for increasing number of veterans suffering from severe mental disabilities. Without housing, they too often find themselves unable to access the care they need and to which they are entitled. Permanent supportive housing promotes stability, ensuring that residents receive the services and care they need.
A central obstacle to permanent supportive housing is finding the property for it. We have it, Mr. President, and if you don’t want veterans in Los Angeles fighting for a roof over their head and the care they need, use it. Action is the only eloquence that will do.