A dozen advocates, all devoted to meeting one of the most difficult challenges facing the veterans community today, lent their collective expertise to a Homeless Veterans Symposium during the Legion’s National Convention in Minneapolis. Federal and state government officials and representatives of the private sector were among those in attendance.
“The cure for homelessness is in the college classroom,” said Dexter J. Sidney, director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Minneapolis Field Office. “Before I went to Vietnam, I sent an application on a wing and a prayer to the University of Notre Dame, and I received my (letter of acceptance) from them when I was in Vietnam. I put it in my helmet and it became my reason to come home. For a lot of men and women in the service, their only wish is to get out of the war zone, and their thoughts really don’t go beyond that. I found that those I served with who did not have a goal (at home) were the ones who didn’t come back.”
Sidney agreed with his fellow panelists that a root cause of homelessness among veterans is the lack of concrete plans to follow or goals to strive for upon their return.
“The fight against homelessness is not a contest,” said Kathleen Vitalis, president and CEO of the non-profit Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. She stressed the importance of a concerted and cooperative effort among government and private sector entities in attacking problems such as homelessness. “I do see a strong cooperative effort in Minnesota,” she said, “but we have had to work at that over the past few years. I do think that it is something that other parts of the country really need to keep at the forefront because… I do not see the strong partnerships (elsewhere) that need to be in place.”
Dr. Marci Myland of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System stressed the critical need for employment in the prevention of homelessness; not just because of the rent or mortgage-meeting paycheck it provides, but as a treatment for post traumatic stress, a common marker among homeless veterans. “Work cures what ails you,” she said. “This has been studied in a lot of different mental health venues and people having meaningful work is positively correlated with recovery from mental health difficulties. We can’t think in isolation about treatment. We have to think about the whole person and whole person needs. That includes housing, healthcare and meaningful activity.”
The importance of a sensitive and empathetic family and community to welcome home those transitioning from military to civilian life was emphasized by panelist Reggie Worlds, deputy commissioner for programs and services in the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
“When a soldier goes off to war,” Worlds said, “he takes a lot of people with him. He takes mom, he takes dad, brothers, sisters, wives, children – he’s never alone. And when he comes back, he’s going to have to step back into that community and that community is going to have to be there to accept him because he’s going to be profoundly changed. They’re going to have to have tools, they’re going to have education, and they’re going to have to have additional supports.”
Symposium participants noted repeatedly the role of veterans service organizations in providing tangible supports for returning warriors and thus preventing homelessness. The American Legion and Legion Auxiliary in particular were lauded for their efforts. One panelist said, “Not since the Vietnam War days of the ‘70s has such attention been paid to this problem. It is good to see.”