Recent studies from VA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimate that about 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Only 8 percent of the U.S. population can claim veteran status, but veterans represent nearly 20 percent of the homeless population.
Statistics on homelessness are often questioned and difficult to nail down. Veteran status can likewise be a challenge to determine. There can be no question, however, of the visual evidence. The homeless man who claims to be a veteran has become a fixture of street corners and underpasses across America. The true magnitude of the problem has been mostly speculative and, therefore, frustrating to address.
Even before thousands of troops began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, government officials were scrambling to find new solutions to the problem of veteran homelessness. VA and HUD have invested considerably in finding concrete numbers, conducting a separate survey for veterans to supplement HUD's Annual Homeless Assessment Report. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki made headlines three years ago when he announced that he would end veteran homelessness during his tenure. His promise may have seemed impossible to fulfill, given that the problem could not really be quantified, but progress toward his goal appears to have been made. HUD and VA report that about 9,000 veterans left the streets in 2010.
Before and since Shinseki's pledge, The American Legion has been on the front lines in the fight to eradicate veteran homelessness. In Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Legion-backed housing projects are giving veterans shelter, employment resources and, most importantly, a second chance at life.
American Legion Veterans Housing
One day in 2003, Navy veteran Bill Czmyr was sitting at a diner in the quiet town of Jewett City, Conn. Another patron asked him if he and the other Legionnaires at LaFlamme-Kusek Post 15 had any plans to use the empty top floor of their building. Czmyr thought for a moment and replied that they might look into converting the space into apartments for homeless veterans.
Nearly a decade later, that idea is the foundation of American Legion Veterans Housing, Inc. (ALVHI),  a $5.2 million housing project with the support of Congress and experts who think it could become a national model. Scheduled to be completed this spring, the facility will have 18 apartments for homeless veterans in Post 15's upstairs space and a four-floor building on adjacent property.
"When I started this, I said, ‘Well, it's a shot in the dark,' but right now, we're under construction," says Czmyr, who spent years talking to contractors, architects, and local people who volunteered their time and expertise. Word of the project made it to state legislators, and soon, Czmyr was talking with VA representatives. They liked the idea.
His fledgling nonprofit corporation gained the support of others with influence, including Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who signed off on a $200,000 earmark for the project.
"That was what really kicked this program forward," Czmyr says. "Other contributions started rolling in."
Following Courtney's lead, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority pledged $3.8 million, and the state's Department of Economic and Community Development gave $500,000. Czmyr and his allies annexed property adjacent to the post to construct a separate but connected housing complex with 10 additional apartments.
Homeless housing facilities usually offer only temporary lodging, giving residents a limited amount of time to get back on their feet and move out. The Jewett City project aims to house homeless veterans as long as they need assistance. VA will pay rent for each apartment, using each resident's $875 housing stipend. And the post has committed $760,000 from its own fundraising to provide amenities and incidentals for each room. Other services will include therapeutic counseling, career advice and financial management.
"We don't know if any of these people have ever even had a checkbook," Czmyr says. "Any type of counseling they need to get back into the mainstream, they will receive."
By campaigning for support throughout Jewett City and the state, Czmyr has gained the trust and confidence of the 10 members of ALVHI, who have met weekly with him since the first donation dollars came in.
"Bill's got a smooth way about him," ALVHI Vice President Carl Brown says. "He doesn't push. There's no pressure. He says, ‘This is what I need, and this is what needs to be done.' And it always ends up getting done."
Czmyr says he feels a personal connection to the project. "I grew up on a farm where, when the wood stove went out, it was just as cold inside as it was outside," he says. "And I said, ‘People who are living out there have to be freezing.' I just knew that if there was an opportunity to help them, I was going to accomplish that."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's vow to end veteran homelessness wasn't just an administrative goal. It was a request for communities everywhere to realize an epidemic and help end it, as thanks to those who once served in the armed forces.
Members of New Jersey's American Legion family heeded that call to action, pumping financial life into a construction project at a state homeless veterans center that was threatened by swelling costs. Bob Looby made Veterans Haven – located in Winslow – a top priority during his 2010-2011 term as department commander.
When he learned that Veterans Haven's new 44-apartment housing wing faced expenses it couldn't meet – about $88,000 was needed to furnish the apartments and account for amenities before it could open – Looby urged posts, squadrons and units in the state to each donate $2,000 to cover the expenses of a single apartment. A plaque outside each apartment's door would honor donors.
"It grew from bedrooms to us furnishing every piece of furniture in the building," Looby says. "I talked about it on every official visit I took to every county in the state."
By the Oct. 27, 2011, ribbon-cutting ceremony, the state's Legion family had raised $165,000, making it possible to add computers, recreation equipment and additional appliances to the facility.
"The American Legion stepped up hugely," says Sean Van Lew, Veterans Haven superintendent. "When we began construction, a lot of the money we had set aside for amenities and furniture in rooms was consumed in the construction process.
"With that money from the Legion, we are able to purchase brand-new bedroom furniture for all 44 rooms, computers and computer accessories for our computer room, new office furniture, and equipment for the conference center."
A resident at Veterans Haven commits to a long-term program that includes finding employment and becoming a productive member of society. A 24-hour professional staff with expertise in health care and career placement assists in that goal.
"We've had guys who we just got jobs flipping burgers down the street at Checkers," Van Lew says. "Next thing you know, they're regional managers there."
For veterans housed there, getting back on their feet usually begins with some form of recovery, because many have substance-abuse problems, Van Lew says. Eventually, as they find employment, they're given more responsibilities, such as paying some rent and maintaining a savings account.
Van Lew says the system is proven, and has about a 75-percent success rate. "Most of these guys, all they need is a chance," he says.
The Legion family's $165,000 donation may be the largest monetary amount raised by a veterans service organization for a government project in New Jersey, Looby says.
"I think homelessness among veterans is something that is always on the minds of all veterans, especially of the Vietnam era. It's at a crisis level now."
Housing for Homeless Veterans Corp.
In 1988, The American Legion Department of Pennsylvania bought four townhouses in Allegheny County, in the southwestern corner of the state, and opened them to homeless veterans. The goal: provide struggling veterans with a safe, clean and stable environment so they can get back on their feet.
Since then, about 700 veterans have gone through the Housing for Homeless Veterans program , of which 85 percent have gone on to become productive members of society.
"Veterans are premier citizens of this nation, and it's our obligation to make sure they are being taken care of, especially our less fortunate veterans," says Richard Coccimiglio, the program's director of outreach and employment. "Our American Legion is there to grab the hand of that fallen soldier and make sure we give him a respectable place within our society."
Residents must clean, cook and maintain the townhouses' common areas. The Legion charges each a small rent fee, and covers utilities and basic upkeep for all six homes (the program expanded in the mid-'90s to include houses in Philadelphia and Ephrata).
The veterans who stay there – men and women, some with children – adhere to a strict, no-nonsense policy that requires them to abstain from substances and get along with other residents. They're given two years to secure decent employment and move out.
Structure is what they need, says Lonnie Bowen Jr., who was homeless off and on for nearly 20 years before he moved into the Legion's Philadelphia home. Post-traumatic stress from the Vietnam War and a car accident cost him his job and family in 1988. He turned to the streets.
"I was so depressed that I just stepped away from society," Bowen says. "I couldn't be around anybody. I couldn't trust people."
He developed a dual-personality disorder and has parts of his life he says he doesn't remember. He recalls waking up in distant cities and not knowing how he got there.
Living in the Philadelphia home has been a godsend for Bowen. He says it's given him direction and a chance to volunteer in the community. He's even returned to writing.
"This place has given me the opportunity to understand me as a person," he says. "I realize I never really understood myself."
Seeing the turnaround of Bowen and others has only deepened Coccimiglio's commitment to the program.
"The gratification we get is when we do succeed, when we get one who is moving on and doing better than what they came into the home with," Coccimiglio says. "When we see that happen, we don't need a pat on the back."
Andy Romey is assistant web editor for The American Legion.