Army Veteran Lovia Primous, 67, speaks with some of his friends at the Ozanam Manor temporary housing for people 50 and up seeking permanent housing, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Phoenix.
( Ross D. Franklin
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway on this Veteran's Day weekend. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Over the last two years, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness across our nation has dropped by 11%, and this represents a decline of more than half since 2010, but the problem persists in some particularly challenging communities.
Mary McGuire: Hi, my name is Mary McGuire, and I'm Executive Director of Village for Vets.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Village for Vets is a non-profit organization working to address homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of unhoused veterans of any metropolitan area.
Mary McGuire: The most recent count of veteran homelessness, which was done in January of this year, showed that there's just over 3,400 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, and about 2,800 of those are considered unsheltered.
There was a small drop, about a 6% drop this year in LA, but Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless problems in the country. As a percentage of the total homeless population, veteran homelessness is going down in Los Angeles. It's just that so many new people are entering homelessness every year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary says that Village for Vets is a relatively small non-profit, but they've been expanding recently, especially to meet the needs caused by the COVID Pandemic.
Mary McGuire: We've been around since 2016, and we really believe that at 2,800 in Los Angeles, that's a manageable number if we as a community can come together and decide to eradicate veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. We are really focused on helping veterans quickly and efficiently. When you're homeless, the stress of that, especially when you're already experiencing other issues like PTs and mental health issues or substance use disorder, can be so stressful.
To have to wait weeks and months for something to be done can be excruciating. We like to be able to turn around assistance very quickly, and we're very focused on both helping homeless veterans to get to the next level of care, whether that's getting into treatment or getting into housing, but also homelessness prevention by helping veterans who are low income, either they're formerly homeless, or they're having a financial disaster that could get them into homelessness and just making sure that they can stay stable in their apartments.
Mary McGuire: While we sometimes think about problems like homelessness in terms of the numbers and statistics we hear, 2,800 homeless veterans in LA or an 11% decrease, within those numbers are stories of real people, of former service members who've been unable to access the support they need.
Cari Bagdonas: My name is Cari Bagdonas and an honorably discharged US Coast Guard veteran.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cari says she first started experiencing a housing crisis around 2015 as rents rose swiftly in Los Angeles.
Cari Bagdonas: Then COVID had happened, and I'm with a partner, and we were trying not to be homeless, and we were going through every avenue through the VA, through LA County, through other organizations. It was very daunting because I also have chronic PTS, which is-- basically, my anxiety levels were extremely high. We were dealing with a multitude of problems that were going on.
It was very complex in itself and very daunting trying to find help. Fortunately, a lady through Congressman Lou's office had connected me with Mary McGuire and Village for Vets. Right as we were basically destitute and homeless, she was able to find a hotel with us because Project Roomkey had run out, and we also had come down with COVID at the same time. Basically, Village for Vets had saved our lives in 2021.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cari, it's really powerful to hear you say Village for Vets saved your lives. I don't hear you saying that as a metaphor or as an exaggeration but as a literal belief that this is why you are still here.
Cari Bagdonas: Yes. There were other organizations that I was working with, but as soon as funds would run out, as I'm finding out later, they would drop me, and there would be no follow-up call, and we would have no motel. A couple times people just basically saying, "I'm sorry, we're going to have to separate you, your family, and your emotional service animal." She's a psychiatric PTS animal. "She's going to have to go to a shelter." For me, that was pretty scary.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. In 2012, the VA under the Obama administration moved towards a housing first model that prioritizes ensuring that veterans are housed first before moving on to provide other wraparound services. It's had real effects, made real progress, but Mary says that accessing help is still confusing and that non-profit organizations like Village for Vets have had to fill the holes in the safety net.
Mary McGuire: The VA is, it sees itself really as a healthcare system, and housing had not generally been something that the VA funded or did as a federal agency, but they've had to come around, and I think they have. There's definitely gaps in services. A lot of the community providers that are supporting homeless veterans are actually doing it with funding from the VA. The VA is a healthcare system, and they contract out services to help veterans.
The good news is there are a lot of resources available to homeless veterans, certainly more than what's available to homeless people at large in Los Angeles. The problem is that accessing those resources can be frustrating and confusing, and overwhelming for anyone, let alone someone who's living on the street. There's things like needing to have financial documents, proof of income, proof of benefits, bank statements.
Most homeless veterans don't have ID. Just having to deal with the DMV alone is a problem. All of these things are so burdensome that a lot of veterans get frustrated and drop out of the process before they complete it. The VA actually is working on this, though. They've made a lot of changes. I don't know that we've seen the true impact of them yet. I'm hoping that we'll see those impacts soon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That confusion of trying to navigate the red tape to access support was part of Cari's experience.
Cari Bagdonas: Sometimes I would sit back, and I'd be like, "Wow." You hear all this information on the radio or on the TV, and everybody's saying, "We have help for veterans. We're trying to get veterans off the street. There's help out there," and then when you seek the help, and you hear, "No," or "I don't know," or "I don't know what to do for you," it's really dumbfounding.
I have a master's in education, I have a bachelor's in marketing. I'm not what people would think your average homeless veteran. It's like I'm your average homeless veteran with a crisis that she was going through because of the military. There's also those veterans that aren't being counted that don't have benefits or don't know that they have benefits or don't know that they can seek the VA, who are out there homeless and don't even know or don't even care because they don't even want to deal with the government red tape.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, pause right there for us. We've got more on veteran homelessness and possible solutions when we come back. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back on The Takeaway, and we're talking about addressing homelessness for veterans. Cari Bagdonas is a United States Coast Guard veteran, and she was facing homelessness in Los Angeles but found help through Village for Vets.
Cari Bagdonas: Just finding housing to be super overwhelming. For me, it was difficult to manage my appointments, to help with PTS along with other medical needs that I have. I was being separated from the VA in this process, and I do not have a car. I lost everything. I lost my storage, I lost my car, I lost my computer. I mean, managing all this on a phone, wondering where you're going to be from one night to the next. Like, I'm getting nervous just talking about it because it's so overwhelming to even think about.
Every step that I was taking every day was on the phone, like trying to get a roof over my head to make sure that we were safe, and then my partner trying to make sure that we were safe. We were going through relationship problems. Anybody having financial problems tends to have relationship problems. Everything was just so overwhelming. At times I wanted to give up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Village for Vets' Executive Director, Mary McGuire, does see some progress from the VA on this issue.
Mary McGuire: We actually really applaud Secretary McDonough for his decision to make veteran homelessness a priority and agree with him that even one homeless veteran is unacceptable. I think most Americans would agree that anyone who has volunteered, put themselves in danger and serve our country should have a safety net when they are discharged and come back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ultimately, she's hopeful that access for veterans will improve both through the VA and organizations like Village for Vets.
Mary McGuire: The VA is not perfect, but I do believe that they're trying to do what they can to solve this problem. They are a federal bureaucracy. Like any bureaucracy, there's no streamlined process to help veterans, but they're working on it. I want to give them credit for trying to remove barriers for veterans.
I do think that there's more that can be done to ensure that veterans who aren't connected to the VA and haven't realized what their benefits could be, especially if they're suffering from mental illness or PTS or have a physical or developmental disability that they know that they can utilize the VA and just organizations like ours, or other community partners just need to do whatever we can to help veterans navigate that system as well because it is complicated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cari has a hopeful future, too.
Cari Bagdonas: The silver lining is the VA is improving, and it is a federal agency, and there's all that red tape. I'd like to say that I really hope that politicians or anyone that is here to make a decision can help with veterans navigate through the VA through programs such as Village for Vets. This is a great model to help the veterans seek the services that they need, and also have empathy and understanding for what people are going through. Whether they're overwhelmed with the system, the policymakers, overwhelmed or not, to really reach out and make sure that a veteran is taken care of and that they know that they can trust them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mary McGuire is Executive Director of Village for Vets. Mary, thanks for being here.
Mary McGuire: Thank you so much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cari Bagdonas is a Coast Guard veteran. Cari, thank you so much for being here and for sharing your story.
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