Flags will be at half-staff today, the 66th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It always hits home. I spent more than a year of my undergraduate studies interviewing World War II veterans for a marketing research book for the University of Illinois Food and Brand Lab (then in Champaign-Urbana, now at Cornell University in New York). I spent about two hours interviewing each veteran, typically in his 80s. It was heartbreaking to see them cry when they talked about the number of friends they lost while overseas, and they never really told you all the details of the things they went through. It was difficult to see the widows and widowers sit in their homes, remembering those details and being surrounded by black-and-white pictures of the time.
What feels even worse is to consider statistics about the number of veterans who don’t even have homes. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that about one third of the nation’s homeless are veterans. That’s at least 195,000 people on any given night. About 45 percent of them have a form of mental illness. Many more also suffer from substance abuse.
The federal VA system has numerous initiatives to address homeless veterans. In Illinois, the Veterans Cash scratch-off lottery game does generate about $3 million a year, some of which helps pay for homeless initiatives. But many veterans either feel ashamed to ask for help or don’t know they qualify for the programs or benefits.
The need will only grow as more men and women come home from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the need has already affected the state’s program G-I Loan for Heroes that administers low-interest mortgages and helps with down payments for veterans. The Illinois Housing Development Authority says 275 veterans have applied, leading the administration to double the available money from $15 million to $30 million since it started. And according to Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, there’s potential to secure another $15 million.
“This program would not be as wildly successful as it is if there was not a desperate need among our veterans of that age group, those young guys coming home, the 20- to 40-year-olds,” Duckworth said at a Springfield policy luncheon last month. “I just think it’s ironic that the people who fought and were willing to lay down their lives for other people to pursue their American dreams are the ones who are having some of the toughest time accessing their American dreams for themselves and for their family members.”
Here’s more from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.