Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sector, finding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


      1. Phil

        Wasn’t that what the G.I. Bill was intended to do? To provide support for veterans so the whole Bonus Army thing wouldn’t happen again?

    1. TimH

      I am curious where the point of inflexion was. Post WW2, there were programs for returning vets, but at some point the VA got overloaded and triaged (or stopped caring/doing).

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        I think there are different points. Would the post WW2 system have helped the Vietnam returnees? There is a difference between killing Nazis and walking through bombed out villages in an industrial scale colonial war and how that will affect veterans a day their psyches. Obviously the 80’s were a greed first Era versus the civil rights era restarting after WW2.

        Even now with career soldiers, what happens to guys who are discharged early for one reason or another?

        To a certain extent, it’s advocacy and oversight. Our electeds pretended the Iraq War didn’t have a cost so they ignored the crisis. Neoliberals appoint guys like Shinseki who aren’t there to do the job as much as create a narrative.

  1. LawnDart

    First stop for a vet facing trouble should always be the VA. They can get the medical coverage for any vet in economic or medical distress. For additional assistance, with paperwork or finding out what programs one might qualify for also meet with a veterans advocate at the VA.

    Pre-virus, the American Legion and the VFW could be helpful too.

    In Pittsburgh, the Veterans Leadership Program on Carson Street was far more helpful and down to earth that the County Veterans Outreach on Forbes (a make-work program?). I am definitely due making a cash donation to VLP– wonderful people.

  2. Rod

    We’re everywhere–obvious to invisible.
    SOP is out when SHTF.
    if possible, Buddy Up (safely) and Keep Up
    That Oath is real and doesn’t expire.

  3. kk

    On the age old principle, ‘you broke it, you pay for it’, the Government should look after these people who have given their mental, social and physical health for the Country.

    1. rd

      The cost needs to be laid out and funded during the decision-making for optional wars like Vietnam and Iraq.

  4. Steve from CT

    As a Vietnam vet, for many years I have been dismayed and disgusted at the way both political parties have treated the vets. The lack of consistent health care and the fact that so many are homeless is beyond belief. The treatment of our returned vets is mostly overlooked for whatever reason.

    I found a source a couple of years ago to provide a reasonable amount of unrestricted funding to Homes for the Brave non-profit in Bridgeport. This is an amazing group but they also are forced to hold various fund raising activities just to survive. The need so badly overwhelms available financial resources.

    I salute the United Steelworkers executive for reminding us of this important issue.

  5. John

    I need a car to get to my VA health clinic, a car to get to the 40 miles to my closest VA hospital although that might be able to be done with VA transport.
    I like the VA’s completely socialized health care…the people are great, the service is good…but it is only modestly available. You need to be in good health to get access. Catch-22.

  6. John

    The government has a moral obligation to veterans. It has been falling down on the job at least since Vietnam. The “defense budget” grows ever larger. Congress looks after the weapons makers and the mercenaries. There must be a few spare millions rattling around to give veterans a decent shot at a life or are they excess.

  7. Synoia

    Where were the democrats? $2 Trillion, and not one penny to address the disease pool of the homeless.

    Even if the $2 Trillion had been directed at the poor, if would have floated up to the wealthy, who don’t need it.

    A pox on both the D and Rs.

  8. Andrew Thomas

    This, sadly, goes back a lot further than the disgraceful treatment of the bonus army. Shay’s Rebellion in the 1790s was one of citizen/farmer/ soldiers who received very little compensation for their service during the revolutionary war, and then faced foreclosures and immiseration as a result. (Google Shays Rebellion for a quick and dirty version) What is happening now is a continuation of the historical norm. Our WW 2 vets were an exception.

  9. xkeyscored

    I read recently that UK food banks and soup kitchens, on which alarming and increasing numbers were dependent before COVID-19, are facing many of the same problems as Jerry Porter. Limits on how many items they can buy at a time are also impacting what little they can get done.

  10. RWood

    Made me think of June Jordan here:
    and what she says starting at 31:54 in particular.

    One billion dollars a day for seven days for Oakland!
    Can you imagine that?
    One billion dollars a day.
    But to hell with the imagination.
    This is our city, this is our money, these are our lives.
    One billion dollars a day for seven days for Oakland!
    Or do we accept that there is only the will and the wallet
    when it’s about kill or be killed.

  11. Felix_47

    As a veteran I have to say that the problems of some veterans are simply a more visible manifestation of problems throughout society. Most veterans are from the less privileged areas of the country. Many serve because there are no other options in their communities. They bring their social and psychological issues with them. The vast majority of veterans are fine. Somehow our politicians, other than Sanders, seem unable to bring this issue to the fore. How middle class voters and southern blacks could be oblivious to this in the primary is astounding and depressing to me. The plight of the homeless veterans and all the homeless, jobless, and sick is manufactured and voted for by the American public. And I don’t think it is because people don’t know. It seems as if the voting public just does not care. This problem is the result of a choice. I expect that many of the leaders would not care because they chose politics so they could grift in an undemanding job suited for narcissists……but the majority of the democratic party voters? It is no accident that health insurance stocks jumped up to 30% after Super Tuesday. And these so called insurance companies are getting a bailout because they might have to pay out for Covid 19 health care? It looks like we have the government we want and voted for and the average American democratic voter thinks having millions living on the edge while we blow trillions on war is a good idea.

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