In 2010, when President Obama pledged to end veteran homelessness in ten years, I cynically thought it was an empty political promise during a time when it was popular to support military issues. But don’t you know, he nearly did it.
By the time Obama left office, veteran homelessness had dropped from 74,087 in 2010 to 39,471 in 2016. Many feared that Trump’s pledge to end Veterans’ Administration corruption and wrongdoing might disrupt the progress. However, despite an uptick in veteran homelessness figures in 2017 attributed to rising housing prices in key states, Housing and Urban Development announced last week that veteran homelessness decreased in 2018 to 37,878, a 5.4 percent drop from the previous year.
Is it really possible to solve this tragic issue once and for all?
Week after week, rain or shine, I see homeless people, some claiming to be veterans, in the streets begging for money.
The weathered woman in the median with a far-away stare, holding a dirty Dunkin Donuts cup. The deeply creased man at the end of the off-ramp, who uses a rusty can for collections. The thirtyish African American man leaning against the sign at the traffic stop, who peers with blood-shot eyes through my windshield, his calloused hand outstretched.
Something about the regularity of the woman’s presence, the ruddiness of her face, and her same sad expression week after week, makes me suspicious that she panhandles to feed an addiction. I witness the man at the off-ramp put his cardboard sign down to stash a gift card that someone gave him behind a nearby shrub, where I spy a surprising stockpile of hidden items. Is he really a veteran as he claims, or a scam artist? The African American man appears so young and capable. Why doesn’t he have a job?
As I avert panhandlers’ eyes, I know that I could easily quell my guilt by simply handing them a few dollars. But would that merely perpetuate their desperate situations? Isn’t there a more effective way to help?
UK journalist and activist, Matt Broomfield, argues that we should “give cash directly and unconditionally” to people who beg in the streets because it’s none of our business what they do with the money. “Those who think begging is a shortcut to easy money should try humiliating themselves daily in front of thousands of total strangers who won’t even look at them or acknowledge their existence. It is grueling, soul-destroying work. If people are desperate enough to beg, they need it.”
Good point. But the most chronic homeless veterans are those who are drug-addicted or mentally ill. Over the years, HUD has learned that trying to get veterans to sober up or treat mental illnesses before giving them housing doesn’t work. Now HUD partners with the VA to house homeless veterans first, then provides follow-up care for the underlying issues. This strategic order — housing first, followed by clinical services and case management — seems to be the key to ending chronic homelessness among veterans.
But this still begs the question — Should we give to the person in the street claiming to be a homeless veteran or not?
Bloomfield says give them the cash regardless: “Wouldn’t you want to drink if you were in their position?… Who are you to tell them what to do with their bodies?” But others opine that by putting change in a beggar’s hand, “we're acting to relieve our guilt rather than [addressing the] underlying crisis.”
Although it doesn’t provide the instant altruistic rush we gravitate toward this time of year, donating money or time to organizations dedicated to getting homeless vets off the streets is the right answer. The VA advises that community-based, veterans-helping-veterans programs are most effective. Stand Down, a grassroots community intervention program is one such organization in need of volunteers and money. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans also suggests donating to local shelters; volunteering as mentors, counselors and legal aides; and helping to raise funds from veterans’ service organizations, churches, schools and businesses.
Spare change provides a “quick fix” for both giver and receiver. But smart giving is what homeless veterans truly need.