Why I am working to end veteran homelessness

Posted December 16, 2013

By: Becky Kanis of 100K Homes

When people find out that I work to end street homelessness for a living, they often offer me their unsolicited opinions about why homelessness exists in our society. Typically conservatives blame the individual and liberals blame the system, but both tend to ask me to confirm their opinions. The truth is that it is both the individual and the system, but that’s not really the point, either. Yes, people are responsible for the decisions they make, including very bad decisions that put themselves and others in harm’s way. At the same time, unpredictable events happen in all of our lives, and too often, the institutions and safety nets we’ve put into place to mitigate those events fail us abysmally. After 9 years in the Army and 12 years working with homeless people, I feel certain that no one is beyond the reach of catastrophe or personal collapse. We are all responsible for what we are creating together, and that means that like it or not, we are all responsible for the fact that more than 57,000 veterans are homeless on the streets of America every night.

Let me illustrate with a story from my own life.

It can be hard to explain this to civilians, but taking command of a unit in the military is a profound privilege. Commanders are entrusted with the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The weight of even the possibility of making life or death decisions weighs heavily on every commander’s soul. The importance of establishing and maintaining good order and discipline cannot be overstated. One rule of thumb for new commanders can be summed up with this adage: “It’s easier to start tough and soften up later than the other way around.” At age 27, as the first woman ever to command Bravo Company, 112th Signal Battalion, (Special Operations) (Airborne) out of Fort Bragg, NC., I took that advice seriously.

Not even a week into command, the Non-Commissioned Officers in my company approached me about a problem that needed solving: Specialist Johnson. Turns out Specialist Johnson had a drinking problem, so much so that he repeatedly showed up for morning PT still intoxicated from the night before. And, to make matters worse, he had already been through the Army’s substance abuse treatment program and he was still blowing it.

Determined to demonstrate that I could be stern and disciplined, I wrote out the paperwork that would result in firing Specialist Johnson and brought it to my superior officer, then Lieutenant Colonel Howie Cohen. Colonel Cohen calmly asked me to fill him in on the details of Specialist Johnson’s problem. I rattled off his failures mechanically, listing the many incidents of intoxication I had witnessed before revealing the final, most damning evidence that Specialist Johnson had already blown his chance at rehab.

I was certain that Colonel Cohen would see how much was wrong with Specialist Johnson and approve the firing. Instead, he said something that I will remember for the rest of my life. “Before you do anything else, I want to know one thing” he said. “What the hell is wrong with the Army’s rehab program that it didn’t fix my soldier?”

What the hell is wrong with the Army’s rehab program that it didn’t fix my soldier?

All efforts to fire Specialist Johnson were put on hold while I made it my job to answer that question. I made an appointment at the treatment center and interviewed employees there. I spoke with Specialist Johnson again. I learned that the truth was messy and complex.

We can argue all day about who is responsible when someone’s substance abuse or mental health spirals out of control – is it the individual or the system? – but the truth is, there are no easy answers. In the Army, you learn quickly that we are all connected, and that blame doesn’t solve many problems. Specialist Johnson was a grown man who made his own decisions, and at the same time, he needed better help than he was getting to accomplish something he simply couldn’t do on his own.

Eventually Specialist Johnson made enough mistakes that no amount of second, third, or fourth chances could justify his remaining in the military, but I am convinced that our responsibility to and for him shouldn’t have ended there. He wanted to serve his country, but he couldn’t because of the powerful sway that addiction held over his life. Fifteen years and thousands of homeless veterans later, I now recognize Specialist Johnson as precisely the kind of person who often becomes vulnerable to homelessness after discharge. In fact, as I lead the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national movement of communities working together to find and house 100,000 homeless Americans by July 2014, I sometimes wonder if he might be one of the people that participating communities are working to get into housing. That possibility is a sobering reminder to me of just how urgent a problem like homelessness should feel to all of us.

The truth is that ending homelessness, even for the most unfortunate of souls, is not an unsolvable mystery, as we have so often assumed. We know what to do, and we know what works, even for the Specialist Johnsons of the world. In the last three years, the communities participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign have already found permanent housing for more than 74,000 disabled, addicted and/or mentally ill Americans, including over 21,000 veterans. Fifty of those communities are on track to end such homelessness outright in the next three to four years. There are no silver bullets to ending homelessness for our veterans, but we have a range of effective tools, and we’ve never been closer than we are today.

If your community isn’t on track to end veteran homelessness soon, find out why! Many communities in America are very close, and it’s not because they have more money or housing resources than everyone else. Don’t settle for the tired debate about individuals vs. systems. This solution lies in communities working together in new ways, and that means you can be part of the solution.

Please visit 100khomes.org to find out more.