Homeless veterans deserve a place in the American dream

Sec. Castro: We'll effectively end veteran homelessness
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  • Maria Cuomo Cole: On Memorial Day, let's commit to end the shame of homelessness among veterans
  • She says those who served America deserve our efforts to stop homelessness

Maria Cuomo Cole is chairman of HELP USA, a nonprofit organization providing housing and supportive services for the homeless, veterans, and victims of domestic violence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Karlene S. is a 35-year-old Army veteran who served as part of the post-9/11 war against terrorism. A single parent, she has three children, the youngest two diagnosed with ADHD and other ongoing special needs. She herself has health issues, including hypertension and depression. While she has tried to provide for her family by working at Target, she still cannot afford her rent.

Mr. Murray is a 50-year-old single veteran. He was in Beirut when the military barracks were bombed in 1983 and 241 military personnel lost their lives. When the bombing took place, he was on duty and was close to the barracks, but did not suffer physical injuries. Upon his discharge, he worked for many years in construction until the economic crash in 2008, when he lost his business and savings.
Maria Cuomo Cole
Deborah D. is a 47-year-old veteran who was a victim of sexual assault in the military. The single mother of two children, she strives to overcome the pain while making a respectable and successful life for herself and her family.
    Karlene, Mr. Murray, and Deborah are among some 50,000 veterans who are homeless, or 1.4 million who are considered at risk of homelessness on any given day, due to poverty, lack of support networks, and marginal living conditions in substandard housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
    They, and all those who put on the uniforms of our nation's armed services, sacrifice so much to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy and take for granted. Far too many, however, come home unable to defend themselves from the ravages of combat.
    The U.S. Census Bureau counts 3.6 million veterans with a service-related disability. A significant percentage are victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. It is estimated that at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and 30% of Vietnam war veterans suffer from these issues.
    These veterans also have alarmingly high rates of depression, unemployment, divorce, substance abuse and other problems, making them all the more vulnerable to homelessness. Female veterans, in particular, are confronted with additional problems, including family reunification issues.
    Yet, there is a lack of tailored programs for the growing percentage of female homeless veterans. More than 280,000 women have served in active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas, which is more than seven times the number of women who served in the Gulf War and almost 26 times the number of women who served in Vietnam.
    According to HUD, nearly 10% of homeless veterans are female, and that number is expected to rise as more women serve and then return home from their deployment. Many of these women are single parents of young children -- the Department of Defense reported in 2010 that 30,000 females who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were single mothers -- and the Department of Veterans Affairs found that about 20% of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are victims of military sexual assault.
    Providing shelter to our female -- and male -- veterans is not enough; it is simply one step. The transition from soldier to civilian is often the most difficult part of a veteran's life. Yet the hardships of going from combat to job application, mortgage payments and working a typical 9-to-5 job, far too often are after-thoughts on the post-military agenda. It is no wonder that long after their active tours, many veterans continue to fight to reclaim their health and well-being.
    The Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) collaborated five years ago on a grand proposal to end homelessness among the military veteran population by 2015. Since that time, substantial funding has been allocated, and programs have been established in partnership with the VA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and non-government organizations across the country toward achieving this ambitious goal. Just last year, first lady Michelle Obama stepped up the charge even further by establishing the Mayor's Challenge, galvanizing local and state officials, non-profits, foundations and other community partners in order to increase and maximize their capacity to combat the problem.
    These efforts have had a profound impact: Veteran homelessness has decreased by 33% since 2010, according to HUD. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio reported recently that the city has already achieved reductions of 75% since 2012 and is on track to fully ending veteran homelessness by the end of the year. To do so, New York is set to receive another $4 million as part of a new federal allocation of $65 million in funding aimed specifically at rental assistance and associated clinical services for veterans at risk of becoming homeless.
    While admirable, and certainly newsworthy, the primary objective cannot simply be about ensuring that "every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America," as President Obama has stressed. The real issue is about providing a place in America for every veteran who has served her.
    To help do so, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald announced earlier this year nearly $93 million in Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grants to community-based organizations across the country. The SSVF program has been instrumental in ensuring that veterans in marginal housing conditions and those who have slipped through the safety net can be spared homelessness through innovative prevention programs.
    HELP USA, the organization I am privileged to chair, has housing developments with essential SSVF-supported services for veterans in six cities, including specialized family therapeutic counseling targeted to female veterans addressing issues of family reunification they need so badly. Today, the organization is the single largest provider of homelessness services and rapid re-housing in New York City, and has achieved encouraging outcomes from prevention interventions including rental assistance, employment, and access to health care, child care and mental health services.
    What we and others who have been committed to solving veterans' homelessness have found is that an integrated and holistic model of housing, counseling, employment and family services helps create a sense of pride and dignity that can only come from independence and stability. This investment of financial and human resources has ensured that more than 80% of veterans and families in our program remain in stable housing for at least a year after they receive assistance.
    On Memorial Day, we must make our own "investment." We must start by remembering that homeless and at-risk veterans need more than just shelter. We must give them the tools to empower themselves and reclaim the self-worth and dignity which comes from occupying a place in the American dream. It is a dream they fought so hard to defend for the rest of us.