Gary Horton | The Courage to Intervene in Homelessness

America has some 45,000 to 60,000 homeless veterans on our streets. This Veterans Day, that statistic trended strong and emotionally raw, all over social media. American military veterans, we learn, live in homelessness at twice the rate of the general population.

Let that sink in: For all the hoopla we give our military, for all the hero-worship we voice for soldiers…when push comes to shove, we allow and suffer returned soldiers who follow their nation’s orders to slip into homelessness at twice the rate of our already super-high homeless rates. 

Go team America! And yet, we continue to suffer this national shame. By all parties. No one is clean.

What’s driving all this? 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Because of veterans’ military service, this population is at higher risk of experiencing traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which have been found to be among the most substantial risk factors for homelessness.”

If you’ve ever known a TBI patient or if you’ve ever suffered PTSD, you know just how incredibly debilitating these conditions can be. For an additional heartbreaker, there’s this: “As troops return from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the face of veteran homelessness has changed: homeless veterans are increasingly younger, female, and heads of households.”

“Put your money where your mouth is.” We’ve heard this saying over and again. And it turns out that we do already have a variety of partial-fix programs to aid homeless vets. Section-8 assistance, emergency assistance, short-term assistance. 

But the programs are confusing for those experiencing duress or lack of mobility. Under PTSD or TBI damage, one loses the focus and ability to think and act rationally — and it only gets worse the worse things get. So, this isn’t just about money spent — it’s about how that money is spent.

There’s been progress. One Kansas town has built up a small community of tiny homes for homeless vets. These provide shelter, warmth, community, safe space, while also providing the most important part – community and health/mental health services.

The SCV worked with Habitat for Humanity and built beautiful homes for veterans near Centre Pointe. Local businesses and community members volunteered to help build real, permanent family homes. These vets are blessed with affordable homes in a community where affordability isn’t really the norm.

But these are outliers. And notice, these programs aren’t fully government managed. We’re not being efficient with our government efforts – although we could be.

And veterans are one thing. Ordinary Americans are homeless at nearly 650,000 across the country. And Southern California has about 50,000 of these, depending on how you count “homelessness.”

I’m a “community pragmatist” when it comes to this social challenge. We’re taxed at 0.25% on everything we buy in Los Angeles and all we’ve gotten is a bloated homeless bureaucracy renting cheap motel rooms and building $400,000 apartment units. Money, mostly wasted. One almost couldn’t imagine a stupider result for the $350 million we’re sending to L.A. annually. This isn’t working. We need a more direct, focused, economically viable approach. 

But this will require a distinct change of mind:

When will we have the courage to say that “public camping without a camping permit” is illegal? When will we say that allowing fellow humans to live in full-on public squalor is also to say we’ve lowered our standards for life such that we just don’t care enough to intervene? And when will we have to determination to build sufficient medical and mental health facilities, including full-time live-in care, to actually change the dynamic? 

A local county official, choosing to remain anonymous, told me, “Nothing will change until we make ‘camping on the streets’ illegal. Anything short of removing homeless to proper facilities where they receive proper care simply won’t work…” 

Boy, that’s politically incorrect but realistically correct.

One way or another, we have to intervene, and that means interrupting what’s happening and changing the dynamic. Moving people when necessary. But always helping them back to normalcy. Indeed, in some cases, whether they think they “want it” or not.

We move houses blocking planned community infrastructure using eminent domain. We’ve moved towns to build dams. We can muster the determination to build care and living facilities sufficient to move people off the streets into places where they are helped. 

This isn’t about just about the homeless themselves. About 55,000 people living in tents and vans scattered all over L.A. degrade the quality of life for everyone else, too. 

Business, families, folks just walking around – are all impacted by homeless encroachment.

Not much will change for our veteran and civilian homeless until we intervene much more directly. This means a full-on commitment to build facilities quickly and economically and move these folks off the street into care. 

“Camping” is for parks, not streets and sidewalks. And homeless people need proper shelter and proper medical and mental care, and we need to change the existing pattern, determinedly. Kind of straightforward.

Do we care enough to care to act in time for next Veterans Day?

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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