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Family Matters Blog: Homeless Veterans Deserve a Helping Hand

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2010 – Over the years, I’ve met some amazing veterans: World War II heroes who regaled me with tales of honor and glory, wounded warriors who have devoted their lives to others despite massive challenges of their own, and young troops who have experienced more in a few years than most of us will in a lifetime.

But last week, I met a veteran unlike any I've ever met before.

I first spotted Willie sitting on a park bench alongside a busy road in St. Petersburg, Fla., where I was attending a journalism seminar. He was staring off into a cloudless blue sky, mesmerized by the rows of gently bobbing boats anchored to the pier just a few hundred feet ahead. He was dressed in shorts and a blue windbreaker, one knee wrapped in a brace, with an old Army cap perched on his head. A walker stuffed with his possessions was positioned closely by his side, as if to discourage anyone brave enough to dodge between cars and snatch it.

I approached him hesitantly, and asked him if I could film him for training purposes, fully expecting him to shoo me off. But Willie smiled shyly and mumbled something I couldn’t understand, but I took it as a green light for my project.

I squatted in front of him, camera in one hand, microphone in the other, and asked him about his Army service. He told me he'd served for a few years back in the late 70s, but got injured and has been working in restaurants ever since. "I don't really have an establishment ...," Willie said.

"So you're homeless?" I asked him, instantly regretting my bluntness.

"I don't have a stable living situation like I should have," he responded, averting his eyes. "I consider it just me and the Lord."

I only had a few minutes to speak with Willie, and then walked away, assignment complete, my thoughts turning to the next task at hand. (Listen to the audio of my interview with Wilie.)

But a few days later, on Veterans Day, his face returned to haunt me. I pictured him sitting on that park bench alongside a busy road, homeless and alone.

I have since found out that Willie is far from alone. More than 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, with nearly 4,000 from today’s generation. And 10 percent of those seeking help for homelessness are women.

"Many of these women have young children who have already been through so much," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace Women and War Conference last week. "This is something that deeply troubles me."

Leaders from the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are working to end this pervasive problem, with numerous programs and resources already in place to either prevent or alleviate veteran homelessness. VA officials have said they’d like to put an end to homelessness within the next five years.

It’s a lofty ambition, but a necessary one. Our servicemembers sacrifice so much to serve. They forgo time with their family and friends; work long, tough days; and put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good. Many return home with the visible and invisible wounds of war. The least we can do is take care of them after their volunteer service is through.

All veterans, including Willie, deserve better than park benches and the underbellies of bridges. They deserve our help and gratitude.

For information on prevention and support resources, visit the VA website. 

To comment on this blog, or to read other posts, visit the Family Matters website.

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