We have just honored our veterans throughout America with parades, speeches and solemn prayers. But, if we really consider how veterans are treated, it is a dishonor to the government and to us.
The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gen. Eric Shinseki, has laid it out. He says veterans lead the nation in depression, suicide, substance abuse and homelessness.
An estimated 131,000 veterans are forced to sleep on the streets or in charity shelters. A large number of these homeless veterans reside in New York. If you can call it residing! We are failing them and we should be happy that a tough, no-nonsense former general has turned his attention to this problem that faces the nation -- and New York in particular.
“It’s refreshing that he’s speaking out with such force about what we confront,” says Mary Brosnahan, leader of the Coalition for the Homeless. Shinseki’s aides have already met with homeless advocates, Brosnahan told me: “We’ve been waiting for such attention from the national government for a decade.”
Shinseki says that he and President Obama want to mobilize the resources of government, business and the private sector to end homelessness within five years, adding: “Those who have served this nation should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope.”
There are 39,000 homeless people sleeping in New York city shelters every night. That breaks all previous records.
One-third of New York’s population of 9,000 homeless single adults are veterans.
Ms. Brosnahan says the city’s shelter system is on the verge of running out of beds. Indeed some homeless men, she says, have to sleep in chairs or on benches at intake centers.
“We’d like to see a specialized intake center created for homeless veterans in New York. Such a setting would expedite their proper care.”
She also wants a program to get homeless veterans into interim and permanent housing.
At the end of World War II, some young veterans took advantage of the opportunity to rent apartments designed to appeal to middle class people, in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. It helped many families get started.
A similar program would seem like the least we can do help those who have sacrificed so much. Some are not only homeless but suffer from post-traumatic stress and other problems.
Shinseki, as a young West Point graduate, fought in Vietnam. When a mine exploded, he lost part of his right foot. He told the Times: “All of us who went through combat, we were carrying a little bit of baggage from the experience, the stress,”
He is a man who seems to thrive on difficult problems. And he isn’t shy about expressing his opinion. Thus, when he was chief of staff of the Army, he questioned the views of high members of the Bush administration that the invasion of Iraq would be “a cakewalk.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld replaced him.
I’ve been covering the war on homelessness for 30 years. The government -- national, state and city -- have made some progress in that war -- but we have not won.
In this season, we honor veterans and bestow presents on our loved ones. The greatest gift we could give returning veterans would be a chance to avoid homelessness and start civilian life with a decent home.