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Our Homeless Veterans Deserve a Home

In today’s highly partisan national discourse, there is one idea everyone can agree on: taking care of our nation’s veterans.  Facing a frustrating, unending series of foreign entanglements, how we care for our warriors when they return has reached the mission critical stage.  We simply cannot continue to ignore those who give their all to keep us safe.

While the methodology of the various homeless surveys are by no means perfect, the results can still break your heart.  Veterans comprise around 34 percent of the general U.S. population yet veterans are grossly over-represented in our country’s homeless population.  By some counts, 40 percent of chronically homeless males are veterans.  And, of the increasing number of females who find themselves homeless, three percent are military vets.

California is home to the highest number of veterans in the nation; with close to 11 percent of all veterans living in the state.  Unfortunately, California also ranks first in the high cost of housing.  The Golden State also has the dubious distinction of currently leading the nation with the highest rate of poverty (24 percent of all Californians live in poverty).  In this perfect storm, California, unsurprisingly, also has the highest number of veterans (at least 29,000) with no place to call home.

By some accounts, Los Angeles has the largest population of homeless military veterans in the U. S. The V. A. estimates there are more than 8,000 veterans living on the mean streets of L.A.  This accounts for approximately 11 percent of all homeless veterans nationwide.

Our nation’s walking wounded warriors can be found walking the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.  Many of the men and women who have protected us – now need protecting themselves.  They suffer from multiple health and mental health challenges like: brain trauma, PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and chronic medical problems stemming from injuries suffered on the battlefield.  It is now our turn to save their lives.

The United Way LA’s Home For Good program has decided to take a radical stand to solve this problem.  We want to challenge everyone involved in this issue to work together to push for action to end homelessness for veterans by 2016.  This could be the perfect legacy issue for President Obama and the new Republican Congress.  The federal government has the capacity to handle the unique set of health and housing issues facing our homeless veterans.  The president and first lady have shown great sensitivity to what is certainly a bi-partisan problem.

At the Los Angeles Mission, about twenty percent of our Fresh Start program members are veterans.  We provide mental health counseling; housing and food assistance along with job training just to name a few of the ways we help restore lives.  The Mission works hard along with all of the other homeless service providers on Skid Row.  However, what all of us are able to do is just a drop in the bucket.  The problem is a never-ending flood of people in need of different life-lines in order to get their lives back.

Homeless service providers all over this nation wonder why government can’t work smarter and more effectively with those of us working on the front lines to solve these tough problems.  We have lots of experience and we seek new ways to work together.

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Herb Smith, President of the Los Angeles Mission, chairman of the board of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM) and a member of the Home For Good Business Leaders Task Force.

Rescue Missions Make Change Happen

Original story on St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Billy is a happily married family man, a veteran who works hard, goes to church and pays his taxes. He volunteers regularly at a homeless shelter showing others there is hope. Billy is also a former alcoholic who lived homeless on the streets of Los Angeles for a year.

Billy is a proud graduate of the Los Angeles Mission Fresh Start program. Billy is like so many others who successfully turned homelessness into hope and a home.

Billy was hungry and came to the Mission for meals. He came back to get a shower, new socks and some clean clothes. He slept in the emergency dorm to escape bad weather. Then he entered our recovery program.

The Los Angeles Mission provided a safe, clean, supportive, transitional environment for Billy. It was a process. He needed to get better first. Eventually, he was ready to reunite with family to live a healthy, clean and sober life in his own permanent housing.

With a new hope and life skills instilled by the Mission, Billy made significant changes in his life. He achieved sobriety and worked hard to achieve the goal of becoming self-sufficient, rather than being dependent on government support.

The kindness of strangers makes it possible to help people like Billy at Rescue Missions across the country. The unfailing generosity of thousands of strangers provides the money to support the everyday work of Missions.

Members of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions have been helping men, women and families find their way out of homelessness ever since the 1870s. The simple reason we do this work is that Jesus calls us to help widows and orphans, the poor, the sick and those in prison.

The harsh reality is this. Our country is currently experiencing the lowest labor participation rate in its history. Those statistics are borne out by a job-lite, low-wage economic recovery coupled with the cost of housing on the rise in most big cities. It means that there are literally more people facing the tough realities of a bleak future with nowhere to go.

Together with mental illness and the abuse of drugs and alcohol, it becomes clear that we need to consider everything available to solve these problems. We have to embrace any and all possible solutions to the constant challenge of homelessness. All of North America has to face up to the challenge of increasing its supply of affordable housing and jobs.

Could Billy have achieved all this if he had been placed in housing first, before he got help from the Mission? Perhaps so, but in his words, “No.” Like most people, Billy lived in a house before his life fell apart and he landed on Skid Row. His issues were spiritual as well as physical, heart issues not just housing.

One of the ideas at the forefront of public discourse is called Housing First. It is promoted by Housing and Urban Development as the best practice for ending chronic homelessness. Housing First is sometimes viewed as an enemy, like it threatens the existence of Rescue Missions. It is not. AGRM members are perfectly positioned to implement these ideas as a complement to what we do every day. It simply is not “the” answer to homelessness.

Missions are experienced experts at shifting paradigms. We are willing to work hand in hand to make ideas, like Housing First and rapid rehousing work for everyone. We can cooperate in conjunction with transitional housing and recovery programs to maximize options. Our efforts can result in a permanent home for people who need more than a place to live.

Rescue Missions all over North America have stories like Billy’s. Missions serve those who are relegated to the sidelines of society. Hurting people from broken families, afflicted with: drinking or drug problems spiraling out of control, unresolved mental health issues and complicated medical issues, educational needs, lack of job skills and chronic unemployment. These people are in need of some serious help. A wide array of solutions have to be utilized to get them spiritually, mentally and physically healthy, trained, employed and permanently housed.

If you talk to Billy, he will tell you something radical. He says that nothing less than the power of God is behind the drastic change in his life. Billy gives God all the credit for his successful physical and spiritual recovery. That unfailing love lifted him up and gave him the hope and trust to turn his life around.

The cumulative impact of every mission’s work is to empower people to live empowered, self-sufficient, independent lives to the fullest extent possible. And if that is impossible; get them into permanent supportive housing.”