Help for Homeless Ex-Soldiers

November 19, 1991

The poignant story of a Vietnam survivor who noticed his former comrades camped out near the Vietnam Memorial brought a new face to the problem of homelessness. Ken Smith, a Boston man who started the nation's largest shelter for homeless veterans, sees a national movement building to address the emotional and economic scars many say linger on, nearly two decades after the war finally ended.

While the effects of combat stress may indeed be vastly overrated, especially with so many Vietnam veterans leading successful lives, the federal government's own estimate of 150,000 to 250,000 veterans going homeless every night cannot be dismissed. Something shattered the lives of these American citizens. Moreover, specialists who had for years debunked the notion of economic privation when a citizen-soldier donned a uniform now say that the sacrifice can be a lot larger than they once thought.

At bottom, the factors that have left so many Vietnam-era military veterans homeless are not unrelated to the factors pushing thousands of other disadvantaged Americans onto the streets: housing market shifts that dried up low-income housing just as the "baby boom" generation matured; labor-market shifts that put good-paying jobs out of reach for people with little education; failure of government-funded housing programs to keep pace with the needs of people on the lowest rungs of the economy during an era of diminished federal funding for social programs and the de-emphasis of official compassion for the poor.

Continued refusal to face up to the debt owed to the soldiers who marched off to war, whether it was popular or not, is dereliction of this nation's duty. Treating the inner scars of these ex-soldiers and working to provide the affordable housing they so badly need is an obligation that has been ignored by this country far too long.

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