Editorial: A debt we owe

As we gather around the family table this Thanksgiving holiday and count our blessings, there is one more thing we can be grateful for — fewer veterans are experiencing homelessness.

The number of homeless veterans in Maine dropped 3 percent between 2018 and 2019. It was a small change, but in the right direction. A total of 116 veterans in the state were homeless in January 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nationwide, 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness in January 2019 — a decrease of 2.1 percent. Of those, 22,740 were staying in shelters while 14,345 were “living in places not meant for human habitation.”

Veteran homelessness dropped 47 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to the Portland Press Herald. The success was the result of a program that offers veterans housing vouchers through HUD as well as case management and clinical services through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those services are designed to address some of the underlying causes of homelessness, including mental illness, substance abuse and lack of job skills.

To date, 78 local communities and three states have declared an effective end to veteran homelessness. Maine should make every effort to join that list.

We also must continue to expand, improve and better coordinate health care and mental health and substance abuse services for veterans and address the myriad of needs associated with aging. Those are major concerns that must be grappled with at the federal policy level and solutions will not come cheap. But this is its own kind of national debt and it must be paid.

A recent survey of veterans conducted by Pew Research Center found that most veterans (73 percent) had received benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Fewer than half said the VA is doing an excellent or even a good job at delivering those benefits. Post-9/11 veterans were more likely than others to say the government’s services are coming up short.

About one in five veterans alive today served on active duty following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Veterans in this group are likely to have been deployed and to have served in combat. About half of post-9/11 veterans report having had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences related to their military service, compared to a quarter of pre-9/11 veterans, according to Pew. Many have found the transition back to civilian life challenging.

Thirty-five percent of veterans struggled to pay their bills in their first few years after leaving the military. One in five reported issues with alcohol or substance abuse.

They have returned to a country where many residents don’t have personal experience with military service nor have a close loved one who has recently served. It can be hard for others to understand what they’ve been through.

Luckily, there are local organizations and businesses working to support veterans.

Dead River Co. recently became the first Maine-based company to receive a Gold Medallion award from the U.S. Department of Labor HIRE Vets program for the company’s commitment to hiring veterans.

Downeast Community Partners has a program focused on serving homeless veterans. In October, a construction crew broke ground on the site of a future tiny house in Milbridge. The tiny residence is being built by high school students in Massachusetts. Downeast Community Partners, aided by a Maine State Housing Authority grant, also built two apartments for homeless veterans in Milbridge.

Efforts like these clearly demonstrate that our veterans will not be forgotten.

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