The image we remember when someone has climbed a mountain is the photo at the top: the exhausted and exhilarated climbers planting the flag at the summit. What we don't often think about is the long descent back to safety. On the world's highest peaks, the majority of climbing-related fatalities happen on the way down. When climbers are tired, they lose focus. Once they've taken their eye off the ball, mistakes happen.
I am reminded of this often overlooked fact as the list of cities announcing that they have reached "functional zero" in the fight against veteran homelessness grows. I am afraid of claiming victory too early, when there are still veterans on our streets--when we still have more treacherous territory ahead. I am afraid that politics will get in the way of our ability to serve those veterans who still need our help. And I am afraid that if we take our eye off the ball now, the number of veterans who fall into homelessness will begin to rise again.
Those of us on the ground who work with homeless and at-risk populations every day are continuing to see veterans in need of help. In the cities where "functional zero" has been proclaimed, where U.S.VETS has programs - Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix - our programs are full, with more coming in every day.
In Los Angeles alone, it is estimated that 10 veterans become homeless every day. I do not call this a victory. We have stemmed the bleeding in some cities, but we have not healed the wound.
What we've accomplished in these cities is due to government and communities that have recognized the dire state of things and have accordingly focused resources and attention intensely on this issue. In the last five years, we have enabled tens of thousands of veterans to lift themselves out of homelessness, giving them a second chance at life. Now is not the time to let up - thousands of veterans' lives depend on our continued commitment.
Political agendas have a way of inserting themselves into complex situations, demanding definitive answers when the solution is more fluid. The "Getting to Zero" effort, launched by the Obama Administration in 2009, was always an aspirational political goal. It has accomplished a great deal and has helped many thousands of veterans off the streets.
But if we put all our energy into our quest to achieve this goal within the allotted time frame, what happens next? Will we use all our political capital and valuable resources only to be left with too little to complete the job in the years that follow?
There are still more than 40,000 veterans living on the streets of the United States, and many more returned soldiers heading toward homelessness. What are we prepared to do to remedy this shameful situation, and how long can we maintain our focus to bring about a real and lasting solution?
There is a lot of work ahead of us - the creation of a prevention network that will provide the housing, mental health counseling and job assistance that will help veterans along the way to an independent life. These include the continuing need for transitional housing to provide intensive rehabilitation; a more robust outreach effort to reach those desperate veterans who suffer in silence as they drift toward poverty, isolation and homelessness; and more compassionate communities who welcome low income housing along with the gentrification of inner cities.
These are priority changes at the societal level that we still struggle with, and until we get these right, it is too early to celebrate. Let's not trip and fall now, because if we do, it is not us who will suffer--it is those veterans whose lives are unraveling and who need our help. If we lose our footing, we will not be there to catch them.