Our nation’s military and supporting our veterans have defined each of us. For me, Tiffany Smiley, it was working to enact caregiver reform following my husband’s wounding at the hands of a suicide bomber in Iraq. For me, General Keith Kellogg, it was the dramatic increase of suicides among our homeless veterans.
We’re not alone. Washington is the proud home of several large military instillations and veterans comprise 9% of our population. But sadly, Washington also has more than 1,600 homeless veterans – one of the highest rates of veteran homelessness in the country.
For more than a decade, homelessness among our veterans was on the decline. At the beginning of 2020, however, that number started to go up again – a situation that was further exacerbated by the pandemic and economic shutdown that ensued.
The factors leading to this problem are as numerous and varied as the solutions trying to address it. One thing that isn’t a factor, however, is funding. Federal funding to assist our homeless and at-risk veterans population surpasses $2 billion annually, with various programs across Washington – from the Corps of Recovery Discovery (CORD) in Walla Walla to the Continuum of Care Leadership Team in Spokane – seeking to assist veterans achieve long-term, stable housing.
These are all well-intentioned programs run by committed people who care about supporting our returning veterans, but a growing problem requires a thoughtful new solution.
The approach we propose is modeled off an innovative initiative in Boise and draws on the best elements of the programs mentioned already, bringing them together in a single facility: the creation of Veteran Home Centers.
This approach focuses on five core components: providing a respectful place to live that is run by veterans; an emphasis on family reunification; access to VA benefits – including medical and mental health care, drug and alcohol rehab, and job training; a transition to permanent housing; and engaging community action teams.
Research indicates that a housing-first approach is the critical step toward a long-term solution when dealing with veteran homelessness. Getting our veterans off the streets and allowing them to live independently in a facility with fellow veterans provides stability and an avenue to addressing root causes.
Very often, homelessness can be traced to a disconnection with family. The love and support of a family is invaluable to successfully overcoming homelessness. Family reunification is a crucial step to stability, and this program will prioritize reuniting veterans with their families and people who love them.
Scheduling and traveling to appointments often proves to be an impediment to receiving care for many veterans. The Veteran Home Center approach addresses this with in-house access to VA personnel who can cut through the bureaucratic process and help residents use available treatments and programs.
As we have seen with the “series of broken promises” at the VA hospital in Spokane, we simply cannot singularly rely on the VA system to resolve the challenges facing our returning heroes. The Veteran Home Center would tap the federal funds available and join them with state and local assets for a true public-private partnership.
Addressing homelessness cannot happen in a vacuum – it requires the cooperation of communities and veterans associations. The federal funds available through programs like HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) are the key to attracting the state, local and private investments necessary to make these Centers a reality.
Finally, these centers would provide more than just shelter and care for their residents. At the heart of each facility would be respect, understanding and an acknowledgment of the experiences and sacrifices made by each person living there.
Our veterans need to know there is hope and that with work and the right approach
they have the ability to achieve the ultimate goal of independence again.
Tiffany Smiley, of Pasco, is a national veterans advocate and the 2022 Washington State Republican Party’s endorsed candidate for the United States Senate. Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a 35-year highly decorated veteran of the Army, is the former national security adviser to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and is active in the plight of our military veterans. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.
This article was originally published by The Spokesman Review on April 3, 2022.