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This Independence Day, Let’s Support the Brave Who Keep Us Free

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It’s a sad fact that some Americans who give everything for their country receive little in return. There are at least 41,000 homeless veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and over a million housing insecure veterans, according to Dana Spain, the founder and president of Veterans Villages, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to providing former servicemembers with safe, affordable, respectable, and reliable housing.

In a conversation with Intellectual Takeout, Dana Spain explained that this large group of “home insecure” veterans are those whose housing situation is unstable and might easily fall out from under them. While they’re not currently homeless, they might easily become so.

Veterans Villages aims to be a safety net to prevent that from occurring. The group has successfully erected a beautiful 47-unit apartment building for veterans in Philadelphia for only $6 million, proving that high-quality affordable housing can be built using only private funding. The group plans to build many more such accommodations, although the scope of the problem is larger than any single charity can address.

In addition to offering a safe, clean, and comfortable habitation, the Village also offers programming to assist veterans’ physical and mental wellbeing, such as building-wide events and a food bank, and, perhaps most critically, a strong sense of community and belonging.

Spain described the experiences of residents in the Village. A number of Vietnam veterans—now in their 70’s—have told her that the Village is the first place they’ve truly felt at home in decades. When they returned from Vietnam, they were shunned and castigated by much of society as “baby killers,” and they’ve been on the fringes, wandering and isolated, for many years since—until coming to the Village. One of these elder gentlemen told Spain that he fully intends to breathe his last at the Village because it’s his “family.”

Another resident is a young woman who spent over six years in active service, during which time she experienced sexual assault multiple times. When she got out, she suffered from suicidal ideation and self-harm, and she lost custody of her child while living without shelter. But after coming to the Veterans Village in Philadelphia, she’s experienced a total resurgence in her life. With partial custody of her daughter regained, the writing of a book, and the running of a podcast, she’s flourishing. The new community encircling her has been a lifeline.

The village concept makes a lot of sense: put at-risk veterans together with people of similar mindset and background. If one resident is struggling, there are “46 other doors to knock on,” 46 other friends and compatriots who can understand the pain and help.

“It’s brothers and sisters helping each other, because … there’s the ever-present comradery of the veteran community and a structure in the veteran community where you can ask your brothers and sisters in uniform for help, where you’re less likely to ask people of authority or in management or in government,” Spain said.

Spain was led to found the Veterans Villages charity after her experiences running another charity for veterans called Haven, this one addressing the needs of female veterans just coming out of homelessness. Spain was devasted to see the ladies coming out of her program placed into terrible housing situations, “absolute squalor,” by the VA or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Spain knew that dangerous, drug-infested neighborhoods do not provide a helpful or healing atmosphere for veterans recovering from addiction or mental health problems.

Spain spoke to her father—also a veteran—about her concerns, and he told her: “You build buildings for a living. Let’s build a building and show the government how it’s done.” Spain took his words to heart.

The purpose of the Veterans Villages is not simply to put a roof over the head of a homeless former servicemember, however. If veterans are simply placed in some form of accommodation—even quality accommodation—without a support network and transitional programs, they’re likely to end up just where they started: on the cold, hard, dirty streets.

“Homeless advocacy is broken because throwing money at the problem without building inventory for a safe landing is never going to work,” said Spain. “And so you look at places like California, and over a 5–10 year period, they spent $20 billion to solve homelessness, and their homelessness rose by 40 percent … they never built anything.” Providing roofs isn’t enough. Underlying factors that lead to homelessness must be addressed.

What factors lead to homelessness for veterans? Spain gave Intellectual Takeout a number of reasons.

Most of the veterans she works with were enlisted service members, not officers, and lacked education both before and after their time in the military. They often came from troubled backgrounds and joined the military as a way to learn a trade, have a job, or simply get out of a bad home. They’ve never lived on their own before, and in the military, their basic needs were taken care of. Suddenly, once they’re discharged, they’re expected to live independently without having had the opportunity to develop key life skills.

On top of that, they’ve likely served multiple tours and seen some terrible things. They might be suffering from physical wounds in addition to their mental and emotional ones.

Add that our culture lacks ceremonies or rituals for the welcoming back of warriors into society and the public processing of the consequences of war, and the forces arrayed against our veterans become substantial. Spain noted that after the World Wars, soldiers were welcomed home to the blare of trumpets and the pomp of parades. After Vietnam, however, public perception of soldiers transformed drastically, and many returning veterans since then have received not just silence and indifference, but even malice from the public.

All of these factors compound and pave the road to disaster. Many former servicemen turn to substance abuse to drown the anguish in their heads and end up addicted.

To help veterans with the transition out of the military, a twin approach is needed, Spain argues. First, service members ought to be receiving education in life skills throughout their time in the military, not just in the seven-day crash course at the end of the service that currently exists. Second, a shift in public perception is needed. We need to value our veterans more. She wonders why there’s still great fanfare around D-Day celebrations honoring the men who fought in that war, but there are no celebrations for the men and women who spent 20 years in Afghanistan.

Of course, the public has vastly different views of World War II compared to the wars in the Middle East. However, even if we don’t support a given war, why should the blame fall on the rank-and-file men and women who risked their lives?

On this Fourth of July, we ought to consider the sacrifice that men and women have made on behalf of our country and its independence. Spain says: “Our country and we individually would not have the freedoms we have if our men and women in uniform were not fighting for them. For us, every day is Veteran’s Day … we are fighting for the rights they deserve, for those who put themselves in harm’s way so we can live the life we’re living.”

You can support the mission of Veterans Villages by going to their website, veteransvillages.org, and donating, or by volunteering.

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