Sunday was Veterans Day and it was not very festive for California’s 49,724 homeless ex-military personnel. Some of them were likely seen on downtown San Francisco street corners, holding up signs reading, “Homeless veteran, please help.”
This state has the unhappy distinction of containing the nation’s largest numberof homeless veterans — as many as one in 10 of the former U.S. servicemen and women who slept on the streets or in shelters sometime during 2006.
One in four homeless Americans is a veteran, even though only 11 percent of the U.S. adult population served in our military. Almost 195,000 veterans had no regular housing on any given night last year, according to a disturbing new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Upward of 44,000 veterans are considered long-term homeless. And as many as 468,000 more ex-military could easily lose their homes, too, because they live below the poverty level and pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent.
Homeless veterans come in all ages, from the elderly to an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan personnel. It is true that as compared with the general population, the total group of veterans has a lower poverty rate, more education and a higher percentage of employment. But those veterans possibly facing post-traumatic stress disorder as well as heightened susceptibility to substance abuse, mental illness or lack of personal support networks show extra risk of being homeless — even more so in expensive housing states such as California.
Especially around Veterans Day, it is shocking and shameful that we are not doing better for those Americans who need our help after stepping forward to defend this country. The National Alliance to End Homelessness calls for veterans to be assessed for civilian transition risks within 30 days of discharge, emergency rent assistance and an increase in permanent supportive housing for the most troubled veterans. Much of this program could be applied statewide in California.
On Oct. 31, retired Army Lt. Gen. James B. Peake was nominated by President Bush to be the next chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Peake, 63, is a thoracic surgeon who also was a decorated combat infantry officer in Vietnam. He would bethe first general and the first physician ever to head the DVA.
Peake said his top priority would be to modernize the outmoded disability system that “processes around a 1945 family unit.” He might be an ideal candidate to take charge of operating hundreds of medical facilities for American veterans, but one area of concern is certain to arise at his Senate confirmation hearings.
As Army surgeon general from 2000-04, ultimately under his command was the much-criticized Walter Reed Army Medical Center. We must have totally forthright answers to Senate questioning about why shoddy outpatient treatment for injured Iraq servicemembers at Walter Reed came to light in February.