Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Goal to end homelessness among vets laudable, but is it realistic?

By Mark Brown, Columnist

Dallas Wade’s experience might not fit everybody’s notion of what it means to be homeless. He’s never slept on the street or in a shelter.

But as he sat in a park at 65th and University a year ago September, not knowing where he and his fiance and three children could spend the night, the Iraqi War veteran certainly considered himself homeless.

Out of work and money, out of patience from landlords and newly kicked out of his retired mother’s home, Wade was smacked with a sense of hopelessness similar to what he says he felt in Iraq.

“I don’t ever want to feel like that again,” Wade, 26, told me this week from the comfort of Hope Manor II, a newly-built supportive housing development for veterans and their families at 60th and Halsted where his family now lives.

The 73-unit Hope Manor campus, a collaboration between Volunteers of America and Chicago Housing Authority, has helped Wade put himself back on a path that should save him from that predicament.

Such housing initiatives are also among the reasons Mayor Rahm Emanuel confidently has committed the city to President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

With a new influx of $5 million in federal funds and a smaller commitment of $800,000 more from the city in the mayor’s new budget, Emanuel says Chicago can meet what he calls our “moral obligation” to house all homeless vets in just 16 months.

“Nobody that served their country and volunteered to serve their country should come home and not have a roof over their head,” Emanuel told me Friday.

That’s very true. It’s a laudable goal, and I’m glad to see the mayor making the commitment.

As Wade himself told me, by setting a deadline, “they’ve made themselves accountable.”

“It’s great to hear. It’s something you can get behind,” Wade said.

Still, as a professional skeptic, I’m not convinced the deadline is particularly realistic—or even a reasonable assessment of the scope of the problem.

The city identified 721 homeless veterans when it took its annual count in January. That included 465 vets living in homeless shelters and another 256 living unsheltered on the streets. That’s out of a total identified homeless population of 6,294.

By that measure, though, Wade and his family would never have been regarded as homeless, just one small example of why homeless advocates say such official counts identify only a fraction of the homeless problem.

Many homeless people are hidden from view like Wade, bunking with family members or friends–until their options run out.

That’s why you could scoop up every homeless veteran in the city tonight, give them a place to live and still not eliminate veteran homelessness. We remain a society that produces newly homeless people every bit as fast as we can help the old ones.

Even as Emanuel was calling attention to the additional federal resources for veteran homelessness, homeless advocates were making plans for a new media campaign to call attention to a devastating $3.3 million in federal cuts for support services for all homeless people.

These are services such as mental health or employment counseling that can make the difference between a homeless person finding success or failure.

Emanuel’s plan relies on making such services available to homeless veterans. These services, he notes, help them not only get a roof over their head but also “their feet underneath them so they can move on with their lives.”

That’s definitely Wade’s plan, and he credits Volunteers of America for providing the services that helped him and his family recover since that day in the park when he made a phone call in desperation and found himself in the organization’s protective embrace.

Gradually, he has recovered from what he calls his “period of instability”—brought on by emotional and physical injuries suffered in the service.

Wade is now enrolled in a heating and air conditioning program at Kennedy King Community College. He remains in the Army Reserves and supports his family with temporary benefits he receives under the post-9/11 G.I. bill. He expects to get a job, find his own place and make room at Hope Manor for the next needy vet.

“I can’t abuse this place by being here two or three or four years,” Wade told me.

If the government actually could end homelessness for a subset of the population such as veterans, then maybe that would give us some encouragement to take the next step and eliminate homelessness for, let’s say, children.