OP-ED: Honoring our Pennsylvania's heroes
Throughout Pennsylvania and the United States, our veterans are unfortunately not having their housing needs met, and our fire and ambulance agencies are falling behind with fewer volunteers and evolving challenges. Our veterans deserve a home, and our volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel should have the tools they need to truly make a difference and save lives.
These heroes put their lives on the line to serve our country and communities, often returning from their service with special needs and mental health issues that must be addressed. It is abhorrent to ask so much of these public servants and then turn a blind eye to their issues and medical complications when they need us most.
Many of our homeless veterans are single, live in urban areas, and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one in 10 homeless people are veterans of the armed forces. Nearly half of the homeless veterans on our streets served during the Vietnam era, but the others come from different backgrounds, branches of the military and range from the time of World War II to more recent anti-drug efforts in South America.
In addition to approximately 40,000 homeless veterans across the country, about 1.4 million other veterans are on the verge of homelessness or at risk. This is due to stagnant wages, lack of support networks and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
There are many complex issues that lead to homelessness in general and special circumstances that seem to appear for our veterans. The homeless face extreme shortages of affordable housing, poverty income levels and little or no access to health care. Many of our veterans also live with PTSD and substance abuse disorder, which can be compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.
Many of us are unaware that military training is not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when coming home to compete in the job market.
Our top priority to help these homeless veterans is to get them into secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.
I am working on House Bill 1933, which would bring the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs together with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to provide better assistance to veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. The DMVA would implement a program to identify these individuals, while the PHFA would establish a housing ombudsman to advocate for homeless veterans in the housing market.
Under this program, eligible applicants would receive a maximum of $1,000 per month in the form of a rental voucher for a period of 12 months — aiding our homeless veterans in Pennsylvania.
In addition to these terms, the DMVA may also require the veterans to participate in mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training or other supportive programs as a condition of participation.
As we take care of our homeless veterans, we need to also make sure we have sufficient staff and equipment for our volunteer and career fire and ambulance agencies. Under the recommendation of the Senate Resolution 6 Commission, I’m working with House Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Mike Sturla to introduce House Bill 1448, which would turn the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program into an Emergency Responder Loan Assistance Program.
This expanded loan program would allow volunteer, career and combination agencies that provide fire, ambulance or rescue squad services to access low-interest loans. These loans will help these agencies purchase, modernize, repair and refurbish facilities, equipment and reporting software, as well as to refinance debt.
It is my hope that together, we can help our homeless veterans get back into a loving home where they can feel safe and move on with their lives to become productive members of society. Together, we can ensure that our emergency responders have all the tools and equipment they need to do their jobs and return home to their loved ones safely. We need to be there for our veterans and emergency responders the way they are always there for us and make sure that none get left behind.
— State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans serves the 95th legislative district in York County which includes York City, Spring Garden and West Manchester Townships, and the West York Borough.