"Why Are So Many Veterans Homeless?"

My family and I travel down to New Zealand about every 3 years to visit our friends, family and Church; yet recently, I also had the privilege of making an unexpected and bittersweet journey to the country of my birth; I went to mourn the death, while also celebrating the wonderful long life of my Uncle Wayne; he is my humble hero, a wonderful example and a World War 2 veteran!

Every time we make this journey "down-under", we have the honor of spending a lot of time speaking about what we do and how we work with homeless folk in Uptown, Chicago. Whether it's in front of Titirangi Baptist Church, in a home-group or just chatting with a friend over a meal, people are genuinely interested and bombard us with heaps of relevant questions. Responding to these questions is never difficult or frustrating, we actually find all the sharing quite enjoyable.

Most of the kiwis (New Zealanders) we chat with have seen multiple images of homeless men and women sleeping on benches, pushing around overly stacked shopping carts, occupying "tent cities" or lining up for that elusive shelter bed. All the magazines, televisions, movies and books that occupy kiwi homes, along with the instant news that floods the Internet, cause the vast majority of our people to naturally wonder how extreme poverty can exist in the world's most powerful and affluent nation! Poverty does exist in the "Land of the Long White Cloud", but it's vastly different to what is experienced and seen in the "Land of the Free", so our minds are filled with intrigue and countless questions! 

When a kiwi leaves the shores of Aotearoa (NZ) and flies into San Francisco or Los Angeles, we experience a little culture-shock when some random hustler stumbles up to us, tells us an elaborate story and begs for change. We're often unsure how to respond, because panhandling rarely happens in NZ, in fact, the term "panhandling" is barely known by kiwis. Therefore, very visual and aggressive begging often causes us to feel quite uneasy and awkward, flooding our minds with even more questions about the "Home of the Brave". 

When we combine all the images we see, with all the experiences we've had when traveling, with the facts we know, it's only natural that a myriad of questions quickly mount up! Most people around the globe know that the US has the greatest disparity separating the rich from the poor, incarcerates more people than any other nation, is still suffering from hundreds of years of racism and it costs a fortune for the poor (or those without health insurance) to get even minimal medical care. These realities and facts have caused kiwis, and folk around the world, to ask numerous questions about this western superpower and the promoter of freedom and democracy. 

Here's just a small snippet of the questions that float our way....
"How can all this tragedy happen in a nation that calls itself Christian and says it follows Jesus?"
"How can such a rich country have starving children and so many homeless people?"
"How do you personally cope with aggressive or hostile situations?"
"Why does the "Land of the Free" incarcerate so many?"
"How can such an affluent country not provide adequate healthcare for it's weakest, poorest and most vulnerable citizens?"
"How does someone survive outside in Chicago's bitter cold?"
"When someone begs for money, do you give them any? How do you know they won't spend it on drugs, alcohol or prostitutes?"
"How do you help a homeless person find and obtain permanent housing?"
"It seems racism is still rampant and Martin Luther King's dream is still a long way away from being fulfilled; what do you think?"

There are so many more questions I could have written down, and each answer is subjective and could be it's own blog post! But that small selection gives you a taste of what many concerned people, who live all across the globe, are thinking and asking when they look at the giant western superpower.

Yet, I failed to mention the most common question people tend to ask us. As they watch the nightly news, read the daily newspapers and surf the web, they cannot help but observe America's mighty military, it's extravagant costs and it's irrefutable power and strength. We speak to people with a massive range of opinions on America's Military Industrial Complex; some agree, others disagree, while many float in-between, but they all see what the troops are doing throughout the world and how new weapons of mass destruction are being invented and improved every day. They watch America flood the planet with an unimaginable and grossly extravagant amount of money, making themselves and their causes stronger and mightier. Whether they see all this as good or bad, they often end up asking us a very honest and real question: 

"Why are so many veterans homeless?"

In all honesty; this isn't an easy question to answer! In fact, homeless veterans represent a massive problem on a federal level; they ask questions that Obama, Bush, Clinton and Reagan have all successfully failed to answer during their reigns of power. Homelessness amongst veterans has been a shaming statistic for all the presidents since the Vietnam War. Whether the reason is misdirected money, a lack of interest, incompetent administrative skills or they just "didn't care about the enlisted men and women when they returned home", each elected government has failed to look after these courageous men and women! Unfortunately homeless veterans have been reduced to this country's "least of these"! Too often they feel that they made an enormous sacrifice for the nation, and now they feel that same nation has ignored, forgotten and even ostracized them; leaving them homeless and isolated for years! Many sadly label themselves as "disposable heroes". Too often they are left alone, struggling to cope with the multiple aftereffects of armed combat and the savage brutality of war! Too often they have pleaded for help, but their screams are silenced by our cultural busyness and the noise of our modern day chaos and propaganda.

When we're faced with these questions, I gotta admit, there's not much to say, because I realize that any words I can muster, fail to answer that very honest and genuine question, "Why are so many veterans homeless?" 

As I write this, thousands upon thousands of veterans still occupy shelters, while tens of thousands more sleep rough on the streets, even more ride trains every night, others couch-surf, while a ton more hide-away in uninhabitable locations every night! As most of these homeless men and women close their eyes, they pray for God's mercy; they hope to see the morning, won't be arrested and tossed into jail or become another victim of a hate crime! We also shouldn't ignore all the veterans who are precariously housed; hoping and praying that the curses of homelessness won't swallow them up as well. We also can't ignore all those veterans who are locked up in jails, prisons and mental health facilities because of petty crimes, explosive outbursts and the modern day criminalization of the homeless. These veterans fought for freedom, only to find themselves captured and wondering where they'll lay their weary heads when they're finally released. This harsh reality stares us in the face, begging us to deal with it! 

The truth is: I am unable and incapable of effectively answering these all-important and nagging questions! 
The truth is: I am unable and incapable of changing this depressing landscape that has viciously stained this country! 
The truth is: my hands may be tied when I gaze up at the federal government, yet my hands are free when I look horizontally. 
The truth is: when I gaze upon my local horizon, I am free to touch the lives of homeless veterans who occupy my neighborhood. 
The truth is: when we are willing to sacrifice and courageously step out of our comfort zones, we are all free to love our homeless neighbors with a Revolutionary and Kingdom Love!

My approach to this question, this American tragedy, is to try and paint a subjective picture of what happens in Uptown. As governments and their administrations focus on power, profit and corporations, we must focus on the individuals who are suffering on ground level. In my humble opinion, the plight of the homeless veteran should grab every church, every follower of Jesus and every person trying to live out God's Kingdom. When it comes to helping out these men and women, it shouldn't matter whether we're anti-war or pro-war. When it comes to assisting homeless veterans, it shouldn't matter what our thoughts on guns, war, the military industrial complex and the invasions of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are. What should matter is how too many of our brothers and sisters are being ignored, forgotten and ostracized. What should matter is how we can come together to work together, to help these men and women find housing, employment, treatment, stability, family and, most importantly, Love! 

In saying all this, from observing things from the ground level, I've actually been encouraged, because I've seen more initiatives taking place on a federal level with Obama's administration. More and more homeless vets getting the help they desperately need. This observation is backed up by the statistics showing that the numbers of homeless veterans has decreased significantly since Obama stepped into Office. Yet, statistics and images also show that his administration still has to overcome massive hurdles before we should truly celebrate. In other words, the landscape may look slightly better, but that landscape still features hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans looking for answers! That landscape will not drastically change if it only relies on the government and the VA, it will drastically change if we, the people with little power, are willing to stand up and help these men and women from the "ground-on-up". When we raise our fists and rise up, change will happen; the landscape will look brighter! Hope and Kingdom Love can and will flood our neighborhoods.....

How is this question answered? 
What am I doing about the plight of America's homeless veterans? 
I often finish with a story, because all the false hope, shattered dreams and scandalous propaganda offered by the government, is resurrected into stories of faith, hope and love when the Kingdom of God is living in our midst....

A few moths ago, Tommy, a Vietnam Vet, wandered into our place. He's been homeless for 30 years! Yes, that's not a misprint, Tommy has been homeless in Chicago for 30 long years. To give a little perspective; his homeless journey started when Ronald Reagan was president, and he has remained homeless during the reigns of Bush Sr., Clinton, George W. and now, Obama! He's heard promise after promise from the Republicans and Democrats, he's also seen the vicious backstabbing and finger pointing from both parties, and yet, this poor man has remained homeless and simply faded into Chicago's landscape. For 30 long years, he's been rotating in and out shelters and uninhabitable places! He lives in this massive city, without income and without health insurance! For 30 years, Tommy's been an invisible man in the hustle and bustle of never-ending crowds!

Tommy is an extremely unassuming and polite man! He is drug-free, alcohol-free and felony-free. He doesn't want to bother anyone. He's happy to quietly sit and I've never heard him complain! (I'm complaining for him) He just lives "day-by-day", accepting his "homeless fate". When he wandered into Cornerstone, he didn't come yelling or demanding answers, he was just expecting CCO to be part of his journey, he was expecting CCO to be just another place to lay his weary bones! But, we had other plans, so we drew this information out of him..... 

And upon hearing this American tradegy, we knew we had to be the answer.  We also knew it rested upon our shoulders to help turn his tale of despair into a story of hope! 

This is a little shout-out to a couple of my fellow case-managers (Andre and Franck); through some amazing displays of dedication and love, Tommy's story has changed! Tommy trusts us! Tommy knows we care! Tommy needed direction in trying to navigate through a complicated system that is wrapped in a lot of "red tape". Tommy needed people to advocate for him. He needed people willing to do a lot of leg work for him. Results started happening when we personally took him to the Veterans Administration, Social Security and other places. Results started happening when we became his voice and made a bunch of phone calls on his behalf! Tommy is now getting helped medically by the VA and he's on the tedious path toward finally getting the financial assistance he deserves. 

We didn't just say, "Hey Tommy: Do this; GO". We went with him! We spoke for him! We made sure he was seen! We made sure Tommy was "invisible-no-more"! Through these efforts, Tommy got his HUD VASH (Veterans Adminstration Supportive Housing) voucher.  We are excited to announce; after 30 long years of chronic homelessness, Tommy has found an apartment and should move into his own subsidized place within a couple of weeks. 

Tommy's tragic tale has resurrected into a source of hope! 

Tommy's hope reminds us that....
When we stop waiting for the government and start moving ourselves
When we unite and network together for the "least of these" 
When we truly love our neighbors who've been rejected, isolated and marginalized
When we follow the example of Jesus, by loving ostracized people with a Kingdom Love
When we courageously step out of our comfort zones and take risks

When we do all this, while saturating our weaknesses and fears with prayer and the power of the Almighty God; we'll witness radical and revolutionary change in our neighborhoods. 

When we do all this: homeless veterans will feel accepted and will know the Love of God's Kingdom! 

(UPDATE: 9/19/14: after his long and tedious journey, Tommy successfully moved into his own apartment last winter! He is now also getting the support, medical care and financial assistance he earned and deserves) 

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