On any given night in America, there are an estimated 165,000 veterans sleeping in shelters, on a park bench, in a vehicle or anywhere where they can rest safely. The economic downturn, still continuing for millions of citizens, has had a particularly harsh effect on returning military personnel who can find it difficult to readjust to civilian life, may struggle to land gainful employment, and often are not able to secure an affordable place to live.

The Lancaster Housing Authority (LHA) this month announced a partnership with the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) to provide affordable housing and home loans to veterans. Under the partnership, the LHA will build the new homes and CalVet will provide the loans. CalVet revealed that almost 11 percent of American service men and women reside in California which leads all states in the number of homeless veterans (31,000 as of 2010). In 2008, Veterans Healthcare Systems ranked Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties as the leading regions for homeless veterans (21,474), with Loma Linda second at 8,000 persons.

While veterans represent about 34 percent of the general U.S. population, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) suggested in 2011 that as many as 400,000 veterans will experience some form of homelessness during any year. More than half of these men and women, it was revealed, are chronically homeless (experiencing homelessness for one year or more). An increasing number of young veterans are living on the street as well. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported in January that about 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 2013 were either homeless or in a federal program to get them off the street.

“It is quite simply a tragedy when any of our nation’s veterans have to struggle in order to obtain affordable housing,” said Lancaster Vice Mayor Marvin Crist. “This is why it is so important for state and local government to work together to ensure our veterans have affordable options when it comes to purchasing a home. We are very pleased to enter into this partnership with CalVet to better serve the many veterans in our community.” Crist also wants to partner with the Antelope Valley Transit Authority to provide local veterans free transportation to the VA offices in Westwood in order to activate their rights to services. Also, Lancaster officials plan to partner with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to access federal funds from the VA, as well as other sources, to fund housing and support services for all honorably discharged veterans.

The CalVet Home Loan program is designed to help veterans save money by simplifying the lending process and to help them protect their investment. The housing crash occurred when many veterans were returning from service, some of whom may have found themselves “under water” when the mortgage exceeded the original price of the home, and had to find another place to live. The LHA is working with CalVet to offer veterans home loans at below market rates with a low (or sometimes no) down payment. As well, eligibility has been expanded for Cal Vet Home Loans and now practically any veteran with an honorable discharge who wants to buy a home is eligible for the program.

CalVet also provides California veterans with rehabilitative, residential and medical care and services, as well as long-term care to resident veterans. The current homes (in Lancaster, Ventura, West Los Angeles, Barstow, Chula Vista, Fresno, Redding and Yountville) are live-in residential care facilities that offer a comprehensive plan of medical, dental, pharmaceutical, rehabilitation and social services. The homes range in size from 60 residents on a 20-acre site, to more than 1,000 persons on 500 acres. All eight facilities combined are expected to house about 3,000 homeless, honorably discharged veterans aged 55 years and older. The age requirement is waived for disabled and homeless veterans who require long-term care.

CalVet, which in 2009 opened the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home of California in Lancaster, is improving its record of successfully transforming foreclosed properties into the hands of veterans. The housing crash saw most of these homes statewide fall into blighted conditions; now with the new partnership, LHA will construct new homes in some of Lancaster’s more mature neighborhoods on a dozen vacant lots that are owned by the LHA.

“CalVet is very excited about this collaboration, wherein the Lancaster Housing Authority will be building homes focused toward our veterans, and we will in turn provide loans up to the appraised value of the homes,” said Theresa Gunn, deputy secretary of the CalVet Farm and Home Loan division. “Through this collaboration, we will be able to assist veterans in obtaining the American dream of home ownership.” Each home will be made available for purchase through the LHA and will be marketed strictly for veterans. The program will run during fiscal year 2014-2015. Presently, LHA officials have not identified the dozen or so vacant lots which are scheduled for construction.

The NCH in 2008 reported that 40 percent of homeless men are veterans. From this data the study revealed that 47 percent of homeless veterans served in the Vietnam War; some 75 percent of these persons during the past 30 years have experienced alcohol, drug or mental health problems. Further, 89 percent of homeless veterans received an honorable discharge, while 79 percent reside in urban or “central-city” areas. Another survey conducted in 2010 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that 45 percent of the African American persons seeking their service three years prior were veterans. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was quoted in the latter study: “When compared to their counterparts nationwide, homeless people are much more likely to be adult males, African Americans, non-elderly, alone, veterans and disabled.”

A 2010 study conducted by CalVet on the status of California homeless veterans revealed there are still too many ex-military men and women—and their families—who are without permanent shelter. Most of these veterans require transitional housing, employment training, educational services and, for an increasing amount, addiction services. When the Soviet Union withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 1989, army doctors detected a striking number of soldiers who had become addicted to heroin because the drug was often readily available due to the sheer volume of poppy plantations (the flower used to derive the opiate). Afghan children were able to supply the soldiers with their “fix” for under $4 per day.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2011 found that multiple deployments, combat exposure and physical injuries among American service personnel resulted in a doubling from the years 2002 through 2008 of those persons addicted to opiates. Also, a study of Army soldiers screened three to four months after returning from deployment to Iraq showed that 27 percent met criteria for alcohol abuse and were at increased risk for related harmful behaviors (e.g., drinking and driving, using illicit drugs). Although soldiers frequently report alcohol concerns, the study revealed that few are referred to alcohol treatment. Research findings highlight the need to improve screening and access to care for alcohol-related problems among service members returning from combat deployments.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, when paired with alcohol and drug abuse, make the work of returning some veterans to viable civilian life a daunting task, according to Linda Nunez, co-founder and CEO of the Veteran’s Alliance of Southern California. The challenge to help these men and women, Nunez stressed, encourages the group’s work.

“It’s like the story of the boy on the beach after a storm,” Nunez said. “A man comes by and spots him picking up starfish washed up on the shore and putting them back into the water so they can live. The man asks: ‘What are you doing?’ It’s hopeless. You can’t save them all.” But “the little boy smiles,” Nunez continued, “and picks up another starfish and stars walking toward the sea. ‘I can save this one’ That’s our ultimate goal. We can save this one…and this one…and that one, with the help of partners big and small.”

The VA in 2010 said that former military personnel represent up to 15 percent of America’s homeless population, with more than 135,000 adults in a shelter at some point between 2007 and 2009—the majority of which resided in emergency shelters rather than traditional ones. These numbers, they said, represented a decrease from 195,000 in 2006 to 154,000 the next year. Various programs administered by the VA have reportedly focused more in recent years on outreach, treatment, residential services and vocational rehabilitation. By fiscal year 2009, 92,625 homeless veterans were served by a VA specialized treatment program for the homeless.

The VA has expanded its ability to bring the most vulnerable homeless veterans off of the streets through an expansion of the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans contract residential care program. In fiscal year 2009, 2,252 homeless veterans were placed within such contract housing. VA officials admit that estimates of homeless veterans vary from one study to another (mostly because these individuals often fall in and out of homelessness throughout the year), but they stated that in the past year 29,000 new homeless veterans sought specialized homeless services for the first time. The figure does not represent the estimated thousands of “new” homeless veterans who have not yet applied for VA services.

The El Monte Veterans Village opened last week in the San Gabriel Valley to serve as the region’s first affordable housing community for homeless veterans. The $12 million, 40-unit development was created through the city’s partnership with Mercy Housing and New Directions for Veterans and includes facilities for 40 veterans in studio apartments each fitted with a bath and kitchen, a private balcony, an outdoor stone fireplace. Facilities like this are opening up monthly nationwide to offer case management evaluations, health and wellness programs, job training, family reunification and legal services.

“The federal government has an admirable goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2016,” Crist said. “However, this isn’t good enough for the Antelope Valley. Our nearly 2,800 homeless veterans will have housing before 2016. Our goal is to put a mandate in place which protects our veterans from the unacceptable conditions they currently struggle with. No organization with the ability to effect change when it comes to veteran homelessness should stand by and do nothing. Had these veterans stood by and done nothing during their service to this country, all of our lives would be drastically different today…and not for the better.”

Veterans who are interested in obtaining a CalVet home loan may visit CalVet online at www.calvet.ca.gov or call (866) 653-2510.