The Other Epidemic

We’ve lived with the Covid-19 pandemic for six long months. The other epidemic? Since 1971, at least.

When I came home from Vietnam and started working with vets in the streets, I saw the first of many encampments of homeless veterans. In parking lots, abandoned buildings, dry riverbeds, freeway underpasses, and out in the Santa Monica mountains and beyond. I’m still seeing them.

Every year there’s an official count of the homeless. It’s always inaccurate because many homeless are hidden and hard to find. Every time our Outreach van goes out, we discover homeless vets in a new place. Encampments shift and reform constantly, often because police force them to. When we delivered our Survival Boxes (a 3-5-day supply of food, masks, sanitizer) we heard over and over: Thank you…nobody comes down here to help us. So who goes out to count them? Who even knows where to look?

Likewise, the official number of coronavirus cases. Based on information from care providers, the official tally does not include the number of people who are not hospitalized, or who’ve been exposed and are still in the incubation period nor people who are asymptomatic, but carriers, nonetheless.

I see people walking around in public without masks, and it makes me think of people walking past homeless on the street corners. Both turn a blind eye in denial of the seriousness of the problem. Homelessness and the pandemic together create a potential public health crisis that should concern every single one of us.

With the loss of employment and the shortage of housing, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s looming ahead. Just as we’re experiencing an increase in the number of reported coronavirus cases, we can expect to see an increase in the number of homeless. And make no mistake…many of them will be families. And that will feed back into the loop of rising cases because there’s no safe housing, no way to wash hands, no social distancing in a tent community or a shelter if you can find one.

This message from me is as old as the epidemic of homelessness. When are we going to get serious about it and tackle preventing it at the same time we’re trying to eradicate it?

You know…like wearing a mask to slow the spread.

If you know a vet who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets hotline: 888.777.4443.

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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