March 10, 2013
They live in the woods. Sleep in tents. Share their food. Look out for each other. Like generations of warriors before them, they are a band of brothers.
But they are not in battle. These veterans are homeless.
Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual assessment on homelessness. It concluded that more than 62,000 veterans had no home. That's about one-quarter of America's entire homeless population.
Homeless vets have weathered every conflict from World War II to Afghanistan. Most of them are in New York, the West Coast and the Deep South. Many are here in D.C.
Homeless veterans are women and men. Some have their families with them. Some just lack jobs. Some suffer from substance abuse. Some have physical disabilities or struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or the effects of traumatic brain injury.
None of them wants a handout. But they all need a hand up.
Breaking the cycle of homelessness requires a certain kind of courage -- and not the kind they teach you in boot camp. "Sometimes it takes more than valor," concluded one expert, retired Army Col. David Sutherland, who was point man for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on veterans issues. "It takes leaders in the community connecting with them in meaningful ways."
On virtually every front, victory on veterans issues means more than big government. It means American communities serving American veterans. It starts with welcoming them home. But when they don't have home, it includes doing something about it.
Solving homelessness is far from mission impossible. Ask Deb Snyder, a career Army veteran, now retired. When she put away her uniform, she didn't put away her passion to help her fellow soldiers. In 2011, the Alexandria native decided to do something in her own backyard. She founded Operation Renewed Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to one goal: getting veterans' heads off stone pillows and onto real ones.
Today, Operation Renewed Hope is a company's worth of volunteers, 50 citizens working together to attack the challenge from every angle at the same time. "The need is great," Snyder declares. "We pride ourselves on our ability to quickly identify and assist homeless persons or those who are at risk."
The key is to find the veterans and start helping. "We embrace the housing-first model to help stabilize individuals and families, then coordinate other services as needed," Snyder says, sounding like a field general planning a campaign.
Operation Renewed Hope has already helped 45 veterans. The foundation either found them homes or jumped in to prevent them and their families from winding up on the street.
In a typical intervention, Snyder's team learned of a local veteran and his wife who had been reduced to living in car. He had lost his job. She had serious medical issues. Operation Renewed Hope got them out of the car and into a home. They arranged medical and dental care. They helped the vet get a job. Glamorous? No. But what they did was every bit as a noble as dragging a buddy off the battlefield.
Snyder and her volunteers are twice the citizen for serving their community and serving others. Defeating homelessness and the problems facing this generation of veterans, however, requires more than Snyder's army. The rest of us need to find and support groups like Operation Renewed Hope or find another way to put our time and talents in the service of those who served.
Snyder is "out there in the trenches," remarked one veteran. There is room -- and need -- for thousands more Deb Snyders in those trenches.
-Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner.