Serving Those Who Have Served Us

by Tony Woods   •  

Every night in America, at least 107,000 veterans sleep on the streets. Very few Americans know that one out of every three homeless adults has served in our military — often during times of war. This means those who have served in defense of our country make up a disproportionate share of those who fall into homelessness. This is unacceptable.

At a time when so much has been asked of members of the armed forces, during the last decade of war and in previous conflicts, these sobering statistics beg the question — why?

Of the 81 soldiers I led in combat in Iraq, each of us experienced the consequences of war differently. Many of us felt out of touch or disconnected from friends and family who made up our support networks. Others had a hard time finding steady work outside of the military, moving from job to job in search of a greater sense of purpose. Sadly, four of my soldiers struggled with drug or alcohol addiction. Six of my men returned to empty homes or empty bank accounts after their marriages fell apart while they were overseas.

 Unfortunately, these types of struggles aren’t at all unique to the soldiers I led. Every day, veterans of all of our nation’s conflicts experience similar issues, and all of these challenges are difficult to overcome. When more than one of these challenges occur at the same time, the effects are devastating and can easily result in a veteran ending up on the streets.

For years, the federal government has attempted to address the shameful problem of veteran homelessness. The federal approach has generally come in the form of a litany of rent subsidies, transitional housing programs, job training and placement programs, and grants and vouchers administered through departments such as Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Labor, and various other agencies.

This January, President Obama renewed his vow to end veterans’ homelessness in the next five years by fostering more cooperation within government and maintaining our nation’s financial commitment to solving this challenge.

While the government’s efforts are commendable and essential, the best solution to helping veterans transition off the streets is one that also increases the number of Americans engaged in volunteer service around this issue. Whether it’s providing an AmeriCorps stipend to veterans or their spouses who wish to serve as part of a Veterans Corps, or encouraging every American to volunteer at their local homeless provider, we can all do more.

Volunteer service in support of ending veteran homelessness is a low-cost solution that harnesses the power of those of us who are willing to honor the service of veterans in need of help in our communities.

President Obama has said, “We have to have zero tolerance for homelessness among our veterans… You’ve been everything we could ask you to be. You have done your duties, and as a grateful nation, we must do ours.”

The government has a role to play in ending veteran homelessness, but so do we as citizens. Reach out to your mayor’s office and find out who provides homeless services in your community; spend an evening or a Saturday helping them fulfill their mission. It is time for all of us to step up and serve those who have served us.

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on April 14, 2011 and can be accessed here.

Tony Woods

Coalition Director, Service Nation

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