By MARSHA MERCER
One winter morning a couple of years ago, I was shoveling snow that had fallen overnight when someone said, “I could do that for you.”
He politely introduced himself as Ziggy and said a neighbor sent him. Ziggy was solidly built, not young, wearing a shabby jacket with no scarf, hat or gloves. He wasn’t seeking pity or a handout. He wanted work. He told me he was a veteran, and I handed him the shovel.
Ziggy made quick work of the snow. He said he was a master gardener and would be back in the spring to help with yard work. He walked down the street, and I figured that was the last I’d see of him.
Sure enough, though, when spring showed up, so did Ziggy.
He pruned and weeded and sent me with to the home store with a list. Leaning on a rake, he told me he’d grown up in a foster family and after high school joined the Army, where he’d learned gardening. When he came home, he’d started a landscaping business. He had plenty of work for a while and even hired a couple of guys.
What else clouded Ziggy’s prospects I don’t know, but when someone stole his truck with his landscaping equipment, Ziggy wound up on foot, without a livelihood, living on the street.
He joined about 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans who are homeless on any given night, according to Department of Veterans Affairs. About 260,000 vets are homeless each year, the VA estimates.
Homeless veterans are not a new phenomenon. Historians say there were homeless vets after the American Revolution. The VA provides offers a range of benefits and services, and presidents always promise to do more.
What’s new this Veterans Day is that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said he and President Obama are personally committed to ending homelessness among veterans within five years. Ending as in eradicating, not just reducing.
Shinseki announced the goal Tuesday at a summit on homeless veterans. He stressed that for the first time the government’s aim was not just to rescue homeless vets from the streets but to prevent homelessness.
“No one who has ever served this nation as veterans should ever be living on the streets,” Shinseki declared.
He pledged $3.2 billion next year to fight homelessness among vets. The lion’s share -- $2.7 billion – will go toward expanding health care for vets, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment. About $500 million will be used for homeless programs.
The VA works with more than 600 community organizations around the country to provide transitional housing for 20,000 vets, and it will work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide permanent housing for more than 20,000 vets and their families.
The new Post-9/11 GI bill will enable qualified veterans go to state colleges and universities tuition-free, a major step toward avoiding homelessness, Shinseki said. The VA will expand efforts to help vets who start small businesses and will work with the Small Business Administration to ensure that veteran-owned companies are in line to compete for federal contracts.
The comprehensive push comes as the trend for homeless veterans is improving. The estimate of homeless vets has declined from about 195,000 six years ago. The concern is that if nothing new is done during these tough economic times, the number of homeless veterans could increase 10 percent to 15 percent over the next five years, Shinseki said.
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about 3 percent of the homeless vet population, but they are becoming homeless faster than vets of previous conflicts, studies by veterans’ groups show. Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan fall into homelessness within 18 months.
Shinseki’s plan includes expanding housing options for vets and improving discharge plans for vets who have been incarcerated. A national referral center will help vets and their families locate local social service providers.
Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff in the Bush administration, is getting high marks from veterans groups. We all can hope his plan succeeds.
The last time I saw Ziggy, a chill was in the air and days were getting shorter. He put the garden to bed for the winter and told me he was heading to Florida, where he thought he could find gardening work year round. I hope he found his home in the sun.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.