No U.S. military veteran should be homeless. But despite ambitious efforts on many fronts, the battle to make sure that doesn’t happen is fought every day.
It must be.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acknowledges that due to the transient nature of homeless populations, a flawless count is difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, HUD estimates that nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
This is a national tragedy. Veterans are the breadwinners for our nation. They have put their lives on the line for us and we must not turn our backs now.
Kate McClure didn’t.
McClure, of Florence Township, New Jersey, ran out of gas on an Interstate 95 exit ramp late one night recently. A homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., walked several blocks and bought her $20 worth of gasoline with what little money he had. She didn’t have money to repay him at the time, she told the Associated Press, but visited him a few more times to bring food and water. McClure and her boyfriend later created the online fundraiser page as a thank you and to try to help him get back on his feet.
As of last week, they had raised more than $397,000.
Bobbitt is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and worked as a paramedic in Vance County, North Carolina, before becoming homeless, according to the AP report. Details on how he wound up on the streets of Philadelphia are sketchy, although Bobbitt attributes it to a mix of “bad decisions and bad situations.”
Whatever the reasons, Bobbitt’s story is not unlike thousands of U.S. veterans. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, homelessness might be attributed to a variety of complex factors, including an extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care. Also, the coalition notes, many displaced and at-risk veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
Last month, the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report that said the number of homeless veterans in the state dropped 78.4 percent between 2011 and 2016, the biggest drop of any state. But Vincent Scalise, founder and executive director of the Central New York Veterans Outreach Center in Utica, said that the level of homelessness among veterans locally seems to have held steady over the past few years.
In Oneida and Madison counties, homeless surveys that measure homelessness on one day in January each year have shown the number of homeless veterans falling from 26 in 2009 to none last year, said Scott McCumber, an associate planner with the state’s Continuum of Care program. But, he noted, those statistics and those in the comptroller’s report only apply to one day a year and they use a specific definition of homelessness — someone staying in a shelter, living in transitional housing or living on the street or staying in a motel room while waiting for space in a housing program.
Meanwhile, efforts continue locally to address the problem. In September, local officials gathered to celebrate planned renovations that will add 17 permanent housing units for homeless veterans on the third and fourth floors of the outreach center on Washington Street. The project will be paid for with $3.2 million in funding from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program. Scalise said he expects the project to take eight months to complete.
In addition to the Outreach Center, the Altamont Program specifically helps homeless veterans, providing studio apartments to 11 single men and providing services to help them transition back into the community. During his three years with the organization, Residential Director Robert Green said 15 men have moved into their own apartments. When one of the program’s studio apartments becomes available, it’s usually filled again within three weeks, Green said.
It’s a problem that cannot be ignored. U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, said last month that the federal government is working to address veterans’ issues, passing 14 bills in one week alone on all type of initiatives ... to help veterans get jobs, take care of their families and to deal with mental health issues.
“But,” she said, “we have a long way to go.”
As for Bobbitt, he used some of the money raised for him by McClure to buy a home. He also said that he plans to donate some of his money to a Philadelphia grade school student who is helping another homeless veteran.
This editorial appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch on Dec. 12.