Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The thing from which it has freed us"

353rd Infantry near a church at Stenay, in France, wait for the end of hostilities. 
10:58 a.m Nov 11, 1918, two minutes before the armistice ending World War
Today is Veterans Day, and by my calculation, this is the 92nd year this day has been recognized in our country.  Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the day that the actual fighting ended between the Allied nations and Germany during World War I.  The thinking was that this “war to end all wars” would be the last of its kind, and the armistice would be remembered as the last instance of large-scale warfare between countries.  With the wars that followed, the decision was made to honor the people who had served our country, and Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.  

To commemorate the first Armistice Day in 1919, President Wilson said the following: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

“…The thing from which it has freed us” Wilson was talking about, was the fighting, and unfortunately, there will always be wars from which young men and women in uniform will need to free us.  When I read these words, however, I am reminded of another “thing” from which we need to be free:  homelessness among veterans. 

This is a battle that happens after the fighting but is one that continues for far too many veterans from all wars.   It is a fight that is being waged by veterans against the economy, the lack of affordable housing, health issues, their own difficult past, and yes, sometimes against the VA and other agencies that are tasked with supporting them.  We’re not winning this war right now, but we’re still in the fight.

Here at Community Voice Mail, we’re doing our small part for veterans who are homeless (or as Donna Beegle rightly says, “Veterans who don’t have homes”).  About two years ago, we realized that while veterans are over-represented in the general population of homeless people, and 11% of our clients are veterans, we weren’t providing phone numbers through the Veterans Administration (VA), where many veterans are seeking help.   If we aren’t where the veterans are, our service can’t effectively help end veteran homelessness.  We decided where we might be able to have the biggest impact within the VA, and worked with U.S. Senator Patty Murray and her staff to gain approval for a federal appropriation that would let us conduct a one-year pilot project in Washington State to provide voice mail and information services to nearly 3,000 homeless or at-risk veterans.  Things were going great, and we were ready to go…

But then things came to a stop.  The federal funding to do the project fell through when Congress failed to pass the 2011 Federal budget.  We had a good plan and the support of the VA in our state, but no available funds to conduct the pilot project.  The weeks and months ticked by, and we were no closer to getting CVM numbers into the hands of veterans who need them. 

Finally, we decided to just do it.  Instead of waiting for funding, we told our VA contacts that CVM was going to fund a scaled-down version of the plan, and seek financial assistance from corporate and private foundations. 

It turns out, people care about veterans.  A lot of people.  And fortunately, our simple plan to provide veterans with a reliable way to be contacted and a stream of useful, actionable information resonated with the foundations we approached.   Soon, we had funding commitments from The Boeing Company, Medina Foundation, Tulalip Charitable Fund, and Suquamish Tribe, and these welcomed grants have enabled us to launch our project this month!  Within a year, at least 750 veterans who don’t have a reliable way to be contacted will be using a CVM number and receiving messages about jobs, housing, benefits, healthcare and other important resources.  We’ll keep you posted about this project in the coming months.

On Veterans Day this year, consider this:  there’s a good chance that the homeless person you encounter on the street once wore a uniform for your country.  Between then and now, you won’t know what has happened in a veteran’s life unless you take the time to ask, or at least have a friendly chat with them.  And while you’re talking with the veteran, you might want to say “thanks” for all they’ve given and all they’ve sacrificed while they served our country.  And share your hope for a day when no veterans are without a home to call their own.

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