Remember homeless veterans on Memorial Day

The Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) collaborated five years ago on a grand proposal to end homelessness among the military veterans population by 2015. Since that time, substantial funding has been allocated, and programs have been established in partnership with the VA, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and non-government organizations across the country towards achieving this ambitious goal.

Just last year, First Lady Michelle Obama stepped up the charge even further by establishing the Mayor's Challenge, galvanizing local and state officials, non-profits, foundations and other community partners in order to increase and maximize their capacity to combat the problem.

Military Salute American flag
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These efforts have had a profound impact: Veteran homelessness has decreased by 33 percent since 2010, according to HUD. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio reported recently that the city has already achieved reductions of 75 percent since 2012 and is on track to fully ending veteran homelessness by the end of the year. To do so, New York is set to receive another $4 million as part of a new federal allocation of $65 million in funding aimed specifically at rental assistance and associated clinical services for veterans at risk of becoming homeless.

While admirable, the primary objective cannot simply be about ensuring that "every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America," as President Obama has stressed. The real issue is about providing a place in America for every veteran who has served her.

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Some 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and another 1.4 million are considered at risk of homelessness on any given day due to poverty, lack of support networks, and marginal living conditions, according to HUD.

Of particular concern is the lack of tailored programs for the growing percentage of female homeless veterans. More than 283,000 women have served in active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas, which is more than seven times the number of women who served in the Gulf War and almost 26 times the number of women who served in Vietnam. According to HUD, nearly 10 percent of homeless veterans are female, and that is expected to rise as more women serve and then return home from their deployment. Many of these women are single parents of young children. The Department of Defense reported in 2010 that 30,000 females who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were single mothers. The Department of Veterans Affairs found that about 20 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are victims of military sexual assault.

These female veterans, and all those who put on the uniforms of our nation's Armed Services, sacrifice so much to defend the freedoms that we all take for granted and enjoy. Far too many, however, come home unable to defend themselves from the ravages of combat. The U.S. Census Bureau counts nearly four million veterans with a service-related disability. A significant percentage are victims of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. It is estimated that at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam war veterans suffer from these issues. These veterans also have alarmingly high rates of depression, unemployment, divorce, substance abuse and other problems, making them all the more vulnerable to homelessness. Female veterans, in particular, are confronted with many additional problems, including family reunification issues.

Providing shelter to both our female and male veterans is not enough; it is simply one step. The transition from soldier to civilian is often the most difficult part of a veteran's life. Yet the hardships of going from combat to job application, mortgage payments and working a typical nine-five job, far too often are after-thoughts on the post-military agenda. It is no wonder that long after their active tours, many veterans continue to fight to reclaim their health and well-being.

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In response to their needs, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald announced earlier this year nearly $93 million in Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grants to community-based organizations across the country. The SSVF program has been instrumental in ensuring that veterans in marginal housing conditions and who have slipped through the safety net can be spared homelessness through innovative prevention programs.

On Memorial Day, we must remember that homeless and at-risk veterans need more than just shelter. We must give them the tools to empower themselves and reclaim the self-worth and dignity which comes from occupying a place in the American dream. It is a dream they fought so hard to defend for the rest of us.

Commentary by Maria Cuomo Cole, the chairman of HELP USA, one of the nation's largest providers of housing and supportive services for the homeless, veterans, and victims of domestic violence. Follow her on Twitter @MariaCuomoCole.