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Serving those who have served

Veterans Day was Monday and we have had our annual wave of gratitude for our nation’s servicemen and servicewomen sprinkled throughout sporting events, TV shows and elected officials’ social media.

That is certainly well-earned, and, in many cases, literally hard-fought, but we need to make sure that support for our veterans lasts the other 364 days each year and goes beyond the rhetoric and lives in their reality.

I certainly have a special place in my heart for veterans. My grandfather, Frank Rossman, served in World War II and was stationed in Iceland from 1941 to 1944. My dad, Roger Rossman, served two tours in the infantry in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. And, in high school, I considered serving as well, weighing enlisting directly, joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps and even applying to West Point.

I didn’t end up pursuing a military career, but I have always had tremendous respect for those who do. And hearing about the experiences of my family and friends who served when they returned home, I know that they often need a lot more support in adjusting to civilian life.

Thankfully, I work in a place that understands that, and veterans are one of many groups that benefit from the programs and policies we advocate for at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Today, I want to talk about veterans’ housing needs, which remain a big concern for veterans and the advocates who support them.

There are nearly 600,000 veterans in Michigan — the 11th-largest veteran population in the nation. The homeless veteran population peaked in the state at about 4,700 a year and is now down to about 3,600 a year, a 25% decrease since 2014.

More than half of single-mother veterans in the U.S. spend more than 30% of their income on housing, which is too much, and means their housing is not affordable. Four million U.S. veterans pay more than 30% and 1.5 million pay at least 50% of their income for housing. The youngest veterans — those who have served post-9/11 — tend to spend more of their income on housing and face greater barriers to homeownership than their counterparts who served in earlier eras.

So, what can we do about it? Habitat for Humanity is working with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, the League, and more to make a difference in the housing needs of Michigan veterans.

Last week, my colleague and veteran spouse Julie Cassidy attended and presented at the Michigan Habitat for Humanity’s annual conference. The focus was Habitat’s Veterans Build program, which is designed to both provide homes/home repairs for veterans and to give veterans the opportunity to continue serving the public by volunteering with Habitat.

At the conference, visitors from a local Habitat affiliate in Florida spoke about the community they’re creating through a village for female veterans, who face higher poverty rates than their male counterparts and constitute the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Speakers from several outside organizations, including MSHDA, MVAA, Cinnaire and Zero Day, spoke about how working for and with veterans strengthens communities across the state.

The new MVAA director, Zaneta Adams, spoke about the struggles she and her husband — both disabled veterans — went through when they left the military. They experienced housing instability and she faced judgment when using money from the Women, Infants and Children program at the grocery store to buy food for her family.

Habitat for Humanity is working to help veterans rebuild their lives, and that includes building them homes. Michigan Habitat for Humanity now leads the nation in the number of veteran households served. More than 100 veteran projects have been completed by 35 Michigan affiliates since July 2017, which is a 355% increase from the previous year’s activities. The state’s affiliates are the first to serve 100 veterans, outpacing California, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.

Habitat is doing great work on the ground. But they also know that policy change is equally important, and, at the League, we continue to work with Habitat and other housing advocates on finding a sustainable revenue source for Michigan’s housing trust fund, funneling more resources toward home repairs that improve health and safety, and banning source-of-income discrimination to help veterans and all Michigan residents find safe, affordable housing.

Veterans who are interested in learning more about the state services available to them can call 1-800-MICH-VET, which is the hotline operated by MVAA to help veterans get connected to the important benefits they’ve earned. There are a lot of government and private entities set up to help veterans, but it’s not a seamless, interconnected system, and it can be really confusing to navigate.

We have heard that veterans are often reluctant to ask for help. They are very proud of their service and accomplishments and are accustomed to serving others, so they can be hesitant to reach out when they need it.

MVAA can help people with enrollment for government benefits and connect them to other state and local resources to help them meet their needs.

Michigan veterans have done so much to serve us. We need to make sure our service organizations, policies, and programs are properly equipped to serve them in return.

That is the best way to truly convey our gratitude.

Alex Rossman is external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.