Support efforts to help homeless veterans

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An unfortunate and all too predictable byproduct of the economic malaise of the last five years has been an increase in the number of Americans who are homeless.

According to a study published last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the number of families and individuals deprived of shelter has increased by 4 percent over the last 12 months, and has reached outside urban settings into the suburbs and rural areas. The four horsemen of this particular apocalypse are unemployment, unaffordable housing, poverty and mental illness.

Many of those huddling in storefronts or scrambling for beds in shelters are veterans of this country’s armed forces. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 13 percent of all the homeless adults in America are veterans. That means soldiers who hacked their way through the steamy jungles of Vietnam or endured the arid heat of the Iraqi desert are now having to rest their heads on frigid, unforgiving pavement.

Americans of all political persuasions pledge their support for the troops, particularly in wartime. But the number who are left without a roof over their heads after they return from the line of fire – some estimates place it in the neighborhood of 62,000 per night – demonstrates we are not providing all the support that we could.

On Sunday, the Observer-Reporter concluded its three-part, in-depth examination of homelessness by exploring the lives of veterans in Washington and Greene counties who, as the title of the series stated, have no place to call home. An example was Keith Lester, a 58-year-old who attended Bethany College in West Virginia, served in the Navy and was honorably discharged. Though Lester was fortunate enough to serve in peacetime and is not plagued by the demons haunting servicemen who have emerged from war zones, he returned to civilian life to face the nightmare of unemployment, losing his job at a Wheeling, W.Va., hospital during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. He came up empty-handed when he looked for alternatives in the job-parched Ohio Valley and more rotten luck followed – a bus ticket was stolen when Lester looked to revive his fortunes in Frederick, Md., and a wrist was broken. He also suffers from emphysema. The City Mission in Washington now pays the rent on an efficiency apartment for him.

Though veterans are eligible for some benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, oftentimes the application process can be complicated. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans strongly advocates for outreach strategies that are community-based and built around the notion of veterans helping fellow veterans. Efforts to implement and enhance programs along these lines in Washington and Greene counties should be supported wholeheartedly by elected officials and their constituents.

For instance, the Veterans Leadership Program, a nonprofit organization based on Pittsburgh’s South Side that helps provide employment and housing for veterans, is looking to expand its offerings in Washington and Greene counties. And the City Mission in Washington is planning on opening a 16-bed shelter specifically for veterans in a space adjacent to its administrative offices.

That would be a way to truly “support the troops.”

“There are veterans who have lost faith in themselves,” according to former Charleroi mayor Frank Paterra, who has been an advocate for homeless veterans. “We cannot lose faith in them.”

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