Friday, July 22, 2011

The Road Home For Veterans

by Toni Atkins
SignOn San Diego

San Diego remains a military town, with more recently returned veterans living here than in any other city. Most veterans are successfully integrated back into civilian life and become our neighbors and co-workers. But for far too many, coming home means a sleeping bag and a shopping cart beneath an overpass or nights spent in a homeless shelter.

Countywide, homelessness has increased almost 20 percent since 2008. Job loss and home foreclosure resulting from the nation’s financial crisis has clearly taken its toll. But homelessness was shockingly high even before the economic meltdown. Untreated mental health issues, often combined with substance abuse, are a leading reason why someone ends up homeless. Family breakups, devastating medical bills, unemployment and a lack of affordable housing can tip the scales for a person living on the margin.

About 20 percent of homeless San Diegans are veterans. Most are single white men, but the number of homeless women vets is increasing. A homeless vet is far more likely to be African-American or Latino than is a non-vet who is homeless. Most served in Vietnam and the years following, but one-third are veterans of conflicts in the Middle East.

What makes our returning warriors so vulnerable? Everything that causes other people to become homeless also affects vets, but vets have additional challenges unique to having served. The experience of living daily with the fear of death or injury, the loss of comrades and the physical deprivations of combat can result in a desire to blot out reality with drugs or alcohol, or in untreated mental health problems. Those who have served suffer disproportionately from post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury or other service-related disabilities, making reintegration into family and civilian life extremely difficult. Drug abuse can lead to a dishonorable discharge, a disqualifier for most veterans’ services. The repeated and extended deployments of recent years have exacerbated this stress and is reflected in a strikingly high divorce rate.

Very often, homeless vets are eligible for services they are not aware of, including housing vouchers, health care and social services. Sometimes the only thing that stands between a vet and a home or wellness is proper identification. Surely our great nation can repay those who put their lives on the line for our freedom by figuring out solutions to these problems.

Innovative programs that pair permanent housing with supportive health and social services have succeeded in getting and keeping many people who have been homeless for years off the street and back into dignity.
The Obama administration recently announced a priority goal of ending veterans’ homelessness within five years and is putting resources behind that pledge. San Diego has been a leader in this effort, including being the home of the nation’s first Stand Down and the recent creation of an Ending Homelessness Downtown Campaign. The campaign’s leadership includes the Downtown Partnership business group, government entities such as the Center City Development Corp., San Diego Housing Commission and the City and County of San Diego, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the police, health care providers, veterans advocates and nonprofit organizations.

The state Assembly has also made ending homelessness a priority by creating The Road Home: The Assembly Select Committee on Homelessness, which I am honored to chair. The Road Home is traveling throughout the state to identify successful programs and resources that can be replicated elsewhere.

In this time when government and private budgets are stretched beyond their limits, the committee is focused on ways to integrate and coordinate services to ensure that everyone is working in partnership, rather than at cross or duplicative purposes.

Today, the Road Home comes to San Diego. The committee will hear from Anthony Love, deputy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Peter Gravett, the secretary of Veterans Affairs for California, and several of San Diego’s leading homeless service providers. The hearing, beginning at 10:30 a.m. at the County Administration Building on Pacific Highway, is open to the public.

In the next several years, the United States will bring home many of the troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 35,000 veterans will return to California each year. It will be a relief to have our young warriors back, but it is imperative we ensure that their road home does not end in a homeless shelter. We can do better.

Atkins, a Democrat, represents the 76th Assembly District, covering central San Diego. She is chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Homelessness and serves on the Assembly Housing and Community Development and Veterans Committees.

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