On Monday, we will honor veterans. We will toast a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coast guardsman. We will shake hands with those marching in parades. We will talk with family members about their service and thank them for their sacrifices.
On Monday night, tens of thousands of the veterans we lauded will lay their heads down on a friend’s couch, a shelter cot or, in the worst cases, on the sidewalk.
I’m looking forward to spending the day with my fellow veterans and spreading the word about how as The American Legion celebrates its centennial in 2019, we still are serving all veterans, regardless of their age, race and gender. But I fear that we as veterans and as Americans too often forget about the most vulnerable among us and do not provide them the same level of service that they provided all of us.
The federal government estimated in January that more than 37,800 veterans were homeless on any a single night. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2017 that more than 1,200 New York veterans were homeless.
One veteran living on the street is one too many. Nearly 40,000 across the country they served is an unacceptable crisis.
Crises do not always develop suddenly. We can do more to help veterans so that they don’t become homeless.
Researchers published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 found that post-traumatic stress — which federal Veterans Affairs data show 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience — was a significant risk factor for homelessness. Similar percentages of veterans from other eras experience PTS. According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, Vietnam era veterans, about 30 percent of whom have dealt with PTS in their lifetime, make up more than half of the homeless veterans population.
Beyond PTS, mental illnesses, substance abuse problems and other issues that increase risk of homelessness have exacerbated the homelessness issue.
That is why this Veterans Day, we need to take real action.
The American Legion in New York has lobbied the State Legislature to pass legislation requiring a state study of veterans homelessness, to be accompanied by recommendations on how to fix the issue. At the national level, The American Legion has advocated for proper investments in federal support services for veterans and their families to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.
Yet it’s an understatement to say we need to do more not only in Washington and Albany, but in our communities across New York.
That is why I ask that all New Yorkers who know a veteran in need pick up the phone and simply remind that person, whether they are at risk of becoming homeless or are dealing with any of the aftereffects of war, that you are there for them.
And I ask that veterans in need reach out to their support network, if only to hear a friendly voice and know they are not alone. That network includes The American Legion, which for 100 years has offered assistance to all veterans.
This Veterans Day can be a turning point in the way we treat our homeless veterans who also face other issues. Join me in seizing this opportunity.
U.S. Navy veteran Gary Schacher is the commander of The American Legion Department of New York. He is the first Iraq War veteran to become New York State commander.