It’s an annual event, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) count of the homeless on LA streets. Here at the National Veterans Foundation, we know this territory. Our Outreach van scours the greater LA area year-round looking for homeless men and women veterans living under bridges, along dry riverbeds, in parked cars and RVs on city streets, at the perimeters of parks. Today, January 23rd, is the last day of LAHSA’s three-day count. And then what?
That’s the hard part. Steps to end homelessness included criminalizing the homeless and clearing encampments, or “moving the herd” as I like to say, as if these human beings were unruly and unwanted livestock. But the problem grew, until finally budgets were drawn up and funded to create more affordable housing here in LA.
Embarrassingly, the cost per unit was absurdly high. Relatively few people were able to be housed and it took a long time. We held high hopes that acknowledging the need for housing would alleviate the problem. But what we subsequently learned was throwing money at the problem isn’t an effective way to deal with it. Now the dialog has shifted to re-purposing existing empty buildings as shelters. This seems to be the most promising and practical temporary solution yet.
Note that conditional word: temporary.
Remember when a diagnosis of breast cancer felt like a death sentence? Women were uneducated about the early signs. Research lacked funding. A lot has changed since then. Now there are many breast cancer survivors among us. Why? In addition to developing new treatments, we learned the importance of prevention and early detection to bring down the death rate from this ravaging disease.
Using that analogy, it seems to me that we are addressing veteran homelessness when it’s at Stage 4. At that advanced stage, there are fewer options for treatment, the costs are greater and the outcome limited. Sound familiar?
What if we’ve been looking down the wrong end of the telescope? What if, instead of counting the mounting percentage of homeless every year, we stopped, backed up and focused on prevention?
Veterans leaving the military lose the basic structure of their lives. They lose housing, jobs, medical care and community from one day to the next. That leaves them extremely vulnerable…living in a narrow window of time when they can take hold or flounder, spiraling down into homelessness. Other factors come into play: depression, PTSD, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), MST (Military Sexual Trauma), and addiction.
What if the VA’s vast budget could be tapped to provide support and education through that transition period back into civilian society? Wouldn’t that be a step toward preventing homelessness? And wouldn’t it be less costly than waiting until Vets bottom out on the streets or get snarled in the legal system? Because, ultimately, we’re all paying the price for that. Of the several veterans’ programs in the LA area, some do offer a combination of treatment and training but here’s the thing: it’s after the fact. Or perhaps better said, after the fall.
Addressing a potential problem lessens the cost and the suffering…and the least we owe our Vets is to shelter them from suffering after their service to our country. The very least.
What’s next? Perhaps another step back—to institutions who study the military and their culture. Their counsel might be heard by the VA or other leaders in government. The NVF has the good fortune to have two board members, both veterans, who are part of that community of educators and researchers. You can be sure they’re aware of the power of prevention, and how that affects not only veterans, but their families. Trauma, from war and from civilian life, can be generational. Families exposed to secondhand trauma also suffer, and children are especially vulnerable.
What I’m saying is that by not backing up far enough to prevent this trauma from being passed on, we’re guaranteeing that we’ll be trying to heal these wounds for generations. I don‘t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of time.
Get educated on the problem and get then involved. Speak up. And if you know a vet or a veteran’s family who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets hotline: 888.777.4443.