In America, we almost universally honor those who decide to put themselves in harm’s way to defend our country by joining our Armed Forces. When a soldier dies, we honor his or her selflessness and commitment to the nation. But we have a terrible record of caring for the veterans who return home with scars from the battlefield, most of which cannot be easily healed. According to the most recent Pentagon figures, there have been almost 11,000 troops wounded in action in Iraq, besides the nearly 1,700 killed there and in Afghanistan. That is why we support a controversial proposal to create a home for disabled homeless veterans in the former convent of St. Anthony of Padua Church on 128th Street in South Ozone Park.
The plan, put forth by Frank Amalfitano of the Long Island-based United Veterans Beacon House, is a good one. The Beacon House has received a federal grant to provide housing for up to 35 disabled homeless veterans in Queens after the government determined there was a shortage of homes for them in the borough. Under the plan, qualified veterans—who suffer from incapacities ranging from from cancer to drug addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder—would move into the building to live and work under 24-hour care until they are ready to get housing of their own. The residents must have been honorably discharged and be cleared by a VA hospital to be eligible, and they could be removed from the program if they fail to meet even a single requirement. The organization runs 15 homes and has served over 1,000 veterans in the last 7 years and has not had a single incident of violence.
With VA hospitals nationwide switching from predominantly inpatient to outpatient care, there is an acute need for residences like Beacon House, especially as the number of veterans increases and their benefits dwindle because of severe cuts by the Bush Administration. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has reported nearly one-quarter of all homeless people are veterans, as are one-third of all homeless men. According to the DVA, there were 44,700 homeless veterans in the state in 2003 and only 354 beds for them.
It is not a foregone conclusion that Beacon House will succeed in purchasing the property from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which has a lengthy and complicated process for selling land to the public. But that did not stop residents from taking issue with the proposed home at Community Board 10’s monthly meeting on February 3rd. While they have reason to be wary when they hear that another community residence is moving into the neighborhood, this does not excuse their position.
Their attitude varied from extreme caution to hate, as most of the residents argued that the home belonged in someone else’s backyard. They told stories about veterans they knew who could not be trusted, drank too much, were drug addicts or could not control their behavior because of post-traumatic stress disorder. There was even a story about a veteran who had lured a child into his car and murdered her. It wasn’t until board member Margaret Finnerty defended Beacon House’s efforts that sympathy and reality were brought back into the discussion. She said that while no one wants a shelter in their neighborhood, it was the community’s collective responsibility to take care of our veterans. It was a moment of clarity through the jeers.
Fear can do strange things to people. It’s not just in this neighborhood where residents are shunning disabled veterans. It’s everywhere. Americans are labeled unpatriotic if they don’t support the war, but many turn their backs on true patriots when they come home. Patriotism begins at home. We must do better.