They Have a Country, They have No Home

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tragically, there are more than 100,000 United States veterans nationwide today who are homeless. They reside in the fields, in the streets, and under bridges. They are cold, hungry and, far too often, forgotten.

They served their country and placed their lives at risk, some suffering from wounds, diseases, mental anguish and unbearable stress. Then so many come back home with nowhere to go.

As a lifelong advocate and supporter of legislative efforts to improve the lives of veterans in our state, I believe it is tragic that roughly 25% of the nation's homeless veterans reside in California. 

At a recent meeting in Yuba City, I heard a heart-wrenching story from my friend and veterans' advocate Stephanie Ruscigno, who told me about a homeless veteran who died in the cold of winter on the streets of Yuba City. Ruscigno, a veteran herself, was present when the homeless veteran was placed in a body bag and taken away.

As I related her sad tale, I observed how the story moved me more than the ceremonies honoring the Unknown Soldier of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia - which I've witnessed and have participated in with my sons.

This soldier on the cold streets of Yuba City was both unknown and forgotten.

Although much of the discussion during a joint hearing of the Assembly Veterans Affairs and the Assembly Housing and Community Development committees was centered on disturbing facts and figures, I was glad to hear that our efforts are making a positive impact in finding our homeless vets a place to live. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there has been an 18% decline in veteran homelessness nationwide since 2008.

This decline can be credited to the programs and services established over the years that have provided assistance to veterans in need.

One program called Housing California has focused on innovative and cost-effective solutions for preventing homelessness. In 2006, this program assisted in securing funding for 42,000 housing units for vulnerable California citizens, many of whom were veterans, living on modest budgets.

Another program called The Pathway Home provides treatment and support for our military members returning home facing medical and physical issues during their transition back into civilian life.

Although programs like these have helped take roughly 24,000 veterans off the streets, we must acknowledge that there is more work to be done. 

Achieving the goal of finding a home for every veteran without one, will require better coordination between all levels of government, as well as collaboration with local non-profits, faith-based and charity organizations. Every community across the nation must renew their commitment in this effort and implement a strategic plan that reflects their local needs and capabilities.

By working together, we can provide our veterans with better health care and job training resources they need when transitioning back home after years of serving our country. This proactive approach will limit the number of crisis situations and prevent veterans from turning to a life on the streets.

I will continue to be a strong voice for veterans in the Legislature and fight for reforms that help find additional housing for our country's heroes. 

Ensuring homeless veterans have a place to live is the least we can do as citizens of California to show our gratitude for their service and sacrifice in protecting our freedoms and defending our country.