Waging a war on homelessness - one veteran at a time

Waging a war on homelessness - one veteran at a time

June 17th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Fixing the problem of homeless veterans - actually of all homelessness - is much harder than it sounds. Even with sufficient resources, homelessness is problem that keeps coming back if we lose focus. And we have.

Still, in recent weeks we've made plans for a new day with a new group of disillusioned, disaffected people - especially the veterans among them.

Why veterans? Because while we hate seeing anyone homeless, down on their luck and high on self abuse, we especially hate seeing it in someone who has served his or her country. And, frankly, the veterans are easiest to raise empathy and bipartisan support for.

In 2003, then-Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker jumped on a George W. Bush administration voucher program to provide free or low-cost permanent housing for the homeless. Corker's administration produced "The Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness in the Chattanooga Region in 10 Years." That "end" of homelessness in Chattanooga would have been last year.

The plan won Chattanooga $1 million in federal funding for three years to provide permanent housing to 50 street people. Chattanooga was the smallest of 10 cities nationwide to receive the grant money. But three years later and about halfway through the blueprint process, Chattanooga's subsequent mayor, Ron Littlefield, proposed a shelter - not permanent housing - in what he billed as a one-stop shop for homeless help at the Farmers' Market, near the Community Kitchen on 11th Street where many homeless services already are located.

Many who work with the homeless said the new mayor's office shifted focus and attention from the blueprint. The Corker plan's premise was that when the homeless have homes, they can better take advantage of counseling, addiction treatment and other services to help them become productive. Over the ensuing years, ending homelessness here stalled. Tent cities sprang up as shelters and vouchers dwindled and recession gripped on our economy. The shelter was never built. Instead a police precinct went up on the land bought for it. Today we have fewer shelter beds than a decade ago.

Still, it was always easiest to raise awareness with homeless veterans. In November 2011, the Community Kitchen honored a dozen deceased homeless veterans here, including guitar-player Howard Glen Baugh, who had served in the U.S. Marines and the Army but died that August homeless in a tent fighting liver disease from drinking too much.

"We expect veterans to come back home. Everybody is joyful and they start a new life, but [some] just can't do it. They can't stop fighting the war," said Ron Fender, a then-outreach case manager for the Community Kitchen.

That's not far from what former National Guardsman Sylvester Caslin told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Todd South last week. Caslin had served nearly 14 years in the Guard, deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. While in the war zone, he was shot at, suffered a head injury and inhaled burning chemicals.

"Just seen a lot of things you don't see in America," Caslin said. "It had an effect on me when I got back."

There are thousands of homeless veterans nationwide, and an estimated 15o in Chattanooga.

Fortunately, the nation and Chattanooga is trying again to wage war on homelessness - at least for veterans. President Barack Obama announced a "mayor's challenge" to make a new offensive in a program Obama began in 2008. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in April signed on with a pledge to end chronic homelessness among veterans here by the end of 2015.

The initiative provides additional resources for veterans that may not be available for the non-veteran homeless.

The federal Veterans Assistance Supportive Housing voucher program pays for housing through HUD. That program alone has reduced veteran homelessness nationally by nearly 70 percent since 2008, according to department figures.

The key locally is connecting organizations here to do a better job of identifying homeless veterans and get them access to programs. Berke has named a task force that will be headed by council member Chip Henderson and Donna Maddox of the Joe Johnson Mental Health Center. Both are good choices.

If we can succeed with veterans, we can help the rest of the homeless population, as well. And that will save money for all of us. It is more expensive to cover the costs of emergency room visits or nights in jail for homeless people than it is to give them modest housing. A 2009 analysis commissioned by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which handles the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, found that the monthly cost of housing and supportive services for one person was $605, while the public costs of a person living on the streets were roughly $2,900 a month.

But money aside, this is simply the right thing to do. It is our moral responsibility, and we have put off acting for far too long.