This photograph by local business owner, citizen activist, and photographer David Entrekin always takes my breath away. Click on the image to see the larger photo, and you will see the words on the cardboard carefully laid out to make a sleeping surface: Made in America. That is how I think about homelessness, and it is especially, painfully apt as we think about homelessness among veterans of our armed forces.
At least 62,619 veterans were homeless overnight during the January 2012 one night counts across the nation. This shocking number includes veterans in shelters and transitional housing programs, as well as those who lack even basic overnight shelter. Last year, the Coalition developed a new part of the One Night Count designed to improve our knowledge about how many veterans are without basic overnight shelter.
Homelessness among veterans rivets people’s attention. People who are quick to think about homelessness as a complex combination of individual shortcomings, societal failures, and economic hard times, come easily to a simple conclusion: no person who risked his or her life in service to this nation should be shivering under a bridge.
In the last two years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) has begun working more deliberately and closely with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to address homelessness among veterans. The good news is that this effort has meant that new, additional resources, including money, are being directed to reach out to, shelter, support, and house veterans. When the national 2012 One Night Count results were released a few weeks ago, Secretary Donovan at HUD and Secretary Shinseki at the VA proudly noted a 7% decrease in homelessness among veterans since the January 2011 count.
For our Veterans Interview Project (VIP), we train volunteers to ask short survey questions the morning after the One Night Count, placing them at public meal sites, day centers, employment and hygiene programs, and other locations where a high proportion of people are likely to have spent the previous night outdoors. Last year we partnered with 16 Coalition member agencies and other organizations, and spoke with nearly a thousand individuals. Our volunteers asked three simple questions:
- Where did you stay last night?
- Have you ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces?
- Were you ever called into active duty as a member of the National Guard or as a Reservist?
Through this survey, and through our survey of key service providers who work with homeless people and veterans, we showed that at least 163 King County veterans lacked basic overnight shelter on this one cold, winter night. This information strengthened and informed our local, regional, and national work.
The Veterans Interview Project improved our local count of veterans, but the sad truth is that we know that actual numbers of unsheltered veterans are higher. Our careful counts are conservative, and not comprehensive. They allow us to state with confidence that at least 163 veterans in our community need immediate and long-term help, among the many hundreds of people who are outside overnight.
On January 25, 2013, we will be conducting our Veterans Interview Project again. If you are interested in helping the Coalition with this special project, we are looking for people who are available for a three hour shift on Friday, January 25, 2013, and who have experience working with veterans or people who are homeless. Please click here to fill out a volunteer application. Thank you.