First lady calls homeless vets a ‘stain on the soul of the nation’


McClatchy Washington Bureau

First lady Michelle Obama stressed the administration’s commitment to end homelessness among veterans Thursday and predicted that the country is on “the verge of making a major breakthrough.”

“That’s a stain on the soul of this nation,” Obama, speaking at the 2014 National Conference on Ending Homelessness, said of veteran homelessness. “As Americans, the idea that anyone who has worn our country’s uniform spends their nights sleeping on the ground should horrify us.”

A longtime promoter of better nutrition and exercise to address an epidemic of childhood obesity, the first lady has recently concentrated her efforts on the administration’s fight against homelessness among veterans. In June, she unveiled the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a partnership intended to solidify the effort, and called on mayors to commit to end the condition in their communities by 2015.

Speaking to a packed audience at the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, Obama said she was outraged to hear that veterans who’ve served their country lack shelter when it rains.

“Every single time they’re asked, these men and women answer the call and give this country everything they got,” she said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 58,0000 veterans are homeless. Nearly 40 percent are African-American or Hispanic, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

But the first lady said that patriotic duty is only part of the reason why this issue is critical.

“Ending homelessness for our veterans can be a crucial first step, a proof point to show that we can end homelessness for everyone,” she said, explaining that the military is a trigger for social change.

School lunch programs started in the 1940s because many people were too malnourished to serve when drafted, she said, and in the fight to end segregation, people argued that “if our troops could bleed together on their battlefield, well, they certainly can sit next to each other at the movies.”

In her remarks, Obama pointed to recent successes in Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which have ended chronic homelessness among veterans, and noted that New Orleans is on track to do the same in the next six months.

HUD has reported a continued decline in homelessness among veterans. Late last year, it reported a 24 percent decrease since 2010, when there were over 75,000 veterans living on the streets.

The improvement comes as the Department of Veterans Affairs _ recently embattled following the discovery that thousands of veterans faced long waits to receive treatment in VA hospitals _ increased funding for programs and grants targeted to veteran homelessness.

Obama said that this improvement means that the U.S. is nearing a breakthrough “that could change the entire conversation about homelessness in this country,” calling it “more important than ever that we redouble our efforts, that we embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among our veterans once and for all.”

The first lady also showcased that the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness has doubled in size to include the commitment of 182 officials. She closed her remarks by thanking those working to end homelessness, but also with an assignment.

“If your mayor isn’t signed up yet for the mayors challenge, then light up their phones so they get on board,” she said.

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