The US is facing a crisis with homelessness, including many military veterans. And the number is increasing in California.
There are around 40,000 homeless veterans in the US according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, and about 11,000 of them live in California. Since 2016 the state has seen a 17% increase rise in homeless vets.
Many of them suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) – often caused by roadside bombs. Since combat tours come with a high probability of acquiring PTSD or TBI, many veterans are unable to hold down jobs once they return from war, and eventually find themselves homeless and living on the streets.
Sadly, stories of veterans serving abroad then suffering at home are becoming all too commonplace, and the term “homeless veteran” – which should not even exist in American vocabulary – has become a badge of dishonor for the country.
Serving abroad, forgotten at home
When politicians discuss this issue, it is usually in terms of federal and state statistics. However, what is missing is the story of homeless veteran families. Homelessness among women veterans is rising especially those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, from 2003- 2011) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, from 2001-present) in Afghanistan, and female veterans are likely to be mothers.
Also, male veterans returning from OIF/OEF tend to be younger and may have young families, and since 2010 49% of deployed service members had children. Compared with veterans of other wars they also have a higher prevalence of PTSD, which is associated with an increased risk for homelessness. Many also suffer moral injury stemming from what they see as unjust wars.
Despite their military service abroad, homeless veterans find little compassion at home for their plight. One example is in California, where there is the largest concentration in the country. There, a nearly 160-hectare campus with a sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs complex stood in an upscale neighborhood in West Los Angeles while homeless veterans in the city lived in squalor for a generation.
For two decades, former Santa Monica mayor Bobby Shriver lobbied many politicians, federal officials, and wealthy residents to use this building to house homeless veterans, but to no avail. The sprawling complex in this wealthy Brentwood neighborhood was originally built to house disabled volunteer soldiers after the Civil War, and from the post-Civil War era through the Korean War, it had housed thousands of disabled veterans.
In the 1970s, the need for such housing waned and the government began to lease large sections of its land to neighbors including schools and private enterprises. However, housing needs returned when soldiers came home from Iraq and Afghanistan to poor economic conditions.
As the politicians and wealthy residents continued to ignore the veterans’ plight, in 2011 Shriver sued the government, contending that those leases violated the original 1888 deed for the land. He won the case in 2013 when a judge ruled that nine leases on the campus were illegal.
Now, prospects look brighter for some of the homeless veterans, as development plans are in place and will break ground this summer on what will become a 60-unit apartment complex. US Vets, a service organization, will step in to marry housing with job training and services addressing mental health, substance abuse and other issues as well as build a sense of community.
After the success of this lawsuit and model, it is reverberating elsewhere and has animated communities to help the veterans. Other models such as building tiny homes as transitional housing until veterans can get back on their feet are also enjoying some degree of success.
Stop forever wars!
Nonetheless, these projects take many years and can only house a small portion at a time of the 40,000 homeless veterans, while the rest continue to suffer. If the US continues down the path of forever wars, it will also prolong the problem and perpetually produce new homeless veterans at a faster rate than the supply of affordable housing.
In the face of these hardships and lack of support from the US government, many veterans have urged Congress to end forever wars that seem unjust and do not truly safeguard national security. As Senator Bernie Sanders has said, if a country is worth anything, it is how we treat the people who put their lives on the line to defend us. In light of Washington churning soldiers into endless unjust wars and then normalizing “homeless veterans” in American society, perhaps at this juncture, Sanders may not think it is worth much.