Mace: We must rededicate ourselves to ending veteran homelessness
On any given night in 2009, more than 630,000 Americans were homeless. Even more tragic, one out of every 10 of those homeless Americans served the country in the armed forces, including more than 600 in South Carolina. This meant 73,000 veterans who volunteered to ensure the rest of us could sleep in peace had no assurance they would find a bed to sleep in; more than 40% of them couldn’t even find one in a shelter.
Since then, we’ve made immense progress. Congress directed federal resources to local and state programs as well as nonprofit groups for the specific purpose of ending veteran homelessness.
But states didn’t stand by and wait for Congress to tackle this problem. During my time in South Carolina’s Legislature, I was a proud sponsor of House Bill 3438. Signed by Gov. Henry McMaster in April 2019, this legislation established a state Department of Veterans’ Affairs to coordinate all our state’s efforts to assist S.C. veterans and ensure that they have access to the resources and benefits they need. We also created the Veterans Trust Fund of South Carolina to assist veterans programs across the state.
All this has had a huge impact. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, by 2019, the number of homeless veterans had fallen by half nationally and by more than 25% in South Carolina. In fact, several states and communities had eliminated veteran homelessness.
There’s a real human impact to all of this that we’ve seen in the Lowcountry and throughout South Carolina.
Recently, 25 veterans in Charleston learned that they were being evicted from their housing at a local extended-stay hotel after its ownership changed. They and their families were given just two weeks to find new homes. City and state leaders quickly coordinated with the federal VA and its staff in Charleston to give veterans more time and to help them find new homes. In the end, homes were found for all of them. No one was forced onto the street.
Beyond this success story, Charleston VA officials have worked closely with state and local authorities to ensure that the VA’s voucher system is streamlined so homeless vets are given resources to get off the streets. Once homeless veterans receive this assistance, the overwhelming majority don’t fall back into homelessness later.
While this is an incredible achievement that took a huge effort at every level, our mission still isn’t accomplished. The dedicated staff of the S.C. Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal VA will tell you our efforts to eradicate veteran homelessness aren’t enough.
According to HUD and the federal VA, worrying signs of a backslide appeared even before the pandemic. The progress over the past decade dramatically slowed in recent years; between 2019 and 2020, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness increased.
We don’t know how the pandemic affected homeless veterans, but we do know it’s had an outsize impact on homeless Americans in general. Unfortunately, with veterans making up 8% of the U.S. homeless population, it’s likely the impact has been devastating.
Homeless veterans face unique challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, a higher likelihood of substance addictions and difficulty transitioning their military skills and experiences into the workforce. It takes massive amounts of determination from public servants, nonprofit workers and the veterans themselves to overcome these obstacles.
All too often, our veterans suffer in silence from the visible and invisible wounds from their service; to allow tens of thousands of them to suffer on the streets is unacceptable.
We can’t let the progress we’ve made toward eradicating veteran homelessness go to waste. We must rededicate ourselves to this fight and do all we can to make the final push to end the problem once and for all. This includes resolving the challenges our veterans face after their service, which leads them to homelessness in the first place.