Opinion Piece: Before You Roll up the Car Window

It was getting close to midnight. After serving hundreds of sushi to angry customers and cleaning up after drunk fraternity boys, I was on my way home with a pocket full of singles. I ran into a middle-aged man holding a sign in front of the restaurant. 

Homeless veteran from Fort Drum, anything helps.

Lucky for him, growing up in Los Angeles, I spent years helping homeless people. More importantly, I was a newly-separated veteran from Fort Drum. I started telling him about the VA facility nearby and available part-time jobs at my school, and this encounter was certainly going to be one of the most heartwarming stories. And yet, he seemed uninterested in these potential opportunities. Granted, washing dishes or patrolling at a community college aren’t the most exciting ways to start a new chapter, but it really bothered me that he was being picky while living on the streets. I genuinely wanted to help him get back on his feet; it was difficult to watch one of the soldiers who served with me in the same base asking for money from strangers. Setting subtle anger aside, I pointed out that the restaurant behind him is hiring and asked why he can’t work there. He quickly answered, “it hurts my back when I work.” 

He was neither disabled nor mentally ill. I did my best to understand why he couldn’t work, but it sounded like an excuse after another excuse. Why would anyone help a person who doesn’t help him or herself? A number of veterans agreed that my anger towards him was reasonable, and I thought so too. 

This summer, I had an opportunity to closely examine veteran homelessness at my internship. Although I was tasked to research how current policies and transition processes can better serve homeless veterans, I already had concluded the research in my mind. My years of experience with homeless people proved that they are simply lazy and unwilling to work; I just had to confirm it this summer. With confidence and arrogance, I started visiting shelters and interacting with homeless veterans. 

And yet, the reality of homeless veterans living in the shelter were quite at odds with my previous experience. Some residents drive a car that is more expensive than two semester tuition, while the vast majority of residents in the shelter suffer from substance abuse and mental illness. I spoke with a homeless veteran who can write a poem better than anyone else I met in my life, then the next day,  I ran into an illiterate sixty years old man. One guy was applying to UCLA in his tent, but the guy lives next to him was moving into permanent housing. The conclusion–what I thought was a solution– of my research was simply inapplicable to thousands of different challenges that homeless veterans face each day. Throughout the summer with homeless veterans, I never found the right context or timing to ask the question that I asked the Fort Drum homeless veteran, “Why don’t you get a job?” 

I still believe that it’s the homeless veterans’ responsibility to diligently work on their own inadequacies and flaws. At the same time, I regret prematurely concluding and generalizing the issue of veteran homelessness with their laziness. Three months of intimate interactions with homeless veterans taught me that everybody is capable of overcoming their adversity with a right group of people around them.

I’m sure a large number of veterans would agree that they became someone who is beyond what they had imagined prior to their service. Our battle buddies and leaders were literally standing next to us through our ups and downs, and over the course of rigorous challenges with supportive people around us, we accomplished impossible tasks and excelled together. Our society values people with military experience because not only are veterans disciplined and dedicated, but veterans are also willing to serve other members of the team despite all inconveniences. Being the supportive battle buddies and mentors to homeless veterans, we can, once again, overcome seemingly invincible adversities. 

We no longer serve our country and American people in the battlefield or in our uniform, but our willingness to serve shouldn’t stop with our DD-214. As a veteran, each of us has a responsibility to continuously support our brothers and sisters who are struggling on the streets. We can keep blaming the system or uncaring officials for homeless veterans’ troubled post-military life; it might even make us feel a little bit better. An increase of veteran homelessness throughout the country, however, proves that complaints and finger-pointing didn’t solve anything. It’s time for us to step out of our comfort zone and reach out to those once stood next to us. 

I’m not suggesting that we must start a big movement or make a sizable donation. We can start with something small. Don’t underestimate how your small acts of kindness can impact–nay, transform–someone else’s life. In other words, next time when you see a homeless person or homeless veteran on the road, before you roll up the car window, look for any change in your pocket or think of a word of encouragement.