Homeless people need more than a house. They need something money can’t buy

In 2021, the City of Los Angeles announced that it would dedicate over $1 billion to provide much-needed services and resources to its homeless population. L.A. has consistently sought new ways to provide funds to fight what has become one of the city’s most pressing needs.  

This included a quarter-percent sales tax, which generates more than $350 million every year that goes to a variety of initiatives. These include shelter beds, temporary housing services and the creation of affordable, permanent housing. 

Yet despite all these innovative efforts, homelessness continues to rise. In 2018, the number of homeless people living in Los Angeles was 52,765. Last year, in 2023, that number had risen to 75,518.  

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This isn’t something unique to L.A. Cities like Portland, San Francisco and Seattle are all wrestling with reversing this trend.  

To be sure, this is a monumental challenge. But there is hope.  

There’s hope because a shift in thinking is starting to take hold. Leaders are beginning to understand that homelessness isn’t only a housing issue. Currently, policymakers, NGOs and civic leaders are thinking of other, less traditional solutions that support the whole person and address all root causes of homelessness. 

Those facing homelessness need more than just housing to build an independent lifestyle and thrive. They need community. They need mentors and friends. They need the genuine love and support that we all need when challenges come our way.  

In short, they need to be treated like human beings. 

Housing solutions can and should be part of the response, but enduring change will only come when paired with critical resources like job training, addiction treatment and mental health services.   

Because often, homelessness goes deeper than a lack of shelter. It’s impacted by the way you grew up and the situations you experienced. And it’s often an uphill battle that requires a healthy physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. 

That’s the story a young woman named Sarah shared with our team not long ago.  

From ages 3 to 6, Sarah was molested by a close family member. Throughout her childhood, her mother struggled with drug addiction, and physically and verbally abused Sarah as well.  

Sarah told us how this trauma profoundly impacted the way she saw herself and her relationships with others. She said her painful childhood led to feeling “worthless, disgusting, and abnormal about myself, along with feelings of rejection and inadequacy due to my mom’s behavior towards me.” 

When Sarah’s brother moved out and she and her mom were left to fend for themselves, Sarah’s mom relapsed. They were soon evicted, and then Sarah dropped out of high school. For the next several months they were left living in motel rooms and homeless shelters. 

Then, finally, there was a ray of hope. 

Sarah joined the Job Corps in 2020 at age 16. She began training to get a job that would support her and her mom.  

That is, until COVID-19 hit.  

During the pandemic, Sarah was kicked out of Job Corps and lost her only way to earn money. Once again, she found herself on the streets.  

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That’s when Sarah came to our team at the Los Angeles Dream Center. The resources, support and sense of purpose she found here gave her hope. But her new friends also restored her confidence and dignity, and equipped her with the skills she needs to chase her own dreams.  

“I plan to graduate with my GED and go to school for Human Services so that I can build a program for all youth who are homeless, abused, lost, or have no hope,” Sarah told us. 

This demonstrates the power of holistic care, of being surrounded by a team of mentors and cheerleaders committed to helping people toward complete physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.  

Churches and other faith-based organizations are often well-equipped to provide the type of nurturing environment that focuses on restoring whole beings. When organizations like these work hand-in-hand with the state, we are more likely to get at the root causes of what leads to sustained homelessness and address the pain and trauma that leads victims into a downward spiral. A community that cares is the best recipe for solving this crisis. I know it works, because I’ve seen it work time and time again.  

It turns out that homelessness is frequently the byproduct of years of destructive habits and patterns that have been repeatedly reinforced. What’s needed are new habits and a community that lovingly holds people accountable in their pursuit of a better life. That’s what thoughtful leaders on this issue are starting to put into practice. And that gives me hope. Hope for the people of our city that have been hopeless for far too long.  

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Our nation owes a debt to these heroes of Vietnam. Let’s pay it off

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” I believe these words of St. Francis de Sales are at the heart of the warrior’s spirit . This may sound strange, for surely it’s the strength of overwhelming force that wins wars. But ultimately, it’s a warrior’s gentle love — fighting selflessly for the brother or sister next to you — that achieves lasting peace.

The U.S. Army helicopter aeromedical evacuation crews, which operated under the radio call sign “Dustoff” and evacuated some 900,000 people to safety and lifesaving care during the Vietnam War , flew their unprecedented missions of mercy with this kind of love. It’s time their virtue and valor were recognized properly by a grateful nation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some history.  

Before Vietnam, few helicopter rescue missions had been attempted in a war zone. However, the dense jungle landscape and tactics of enemy detachments forced immediate reconsideration of Army precedent. It was decided that to evacuate wounded troops, bulky helicopters – easy targets for enemy fire – were the only way.

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Dustoff crews, each consisting of two pilots, a medic and a crew chief, literally rose to the occasion. Unarmed, they took to the sky when summoned, day or night, always operating under the credo “No Compromise, No Rationalization, No Hesitation. Fly the Mission!” Many cannot share their stories because they gave, as President Lincoln said a century before Vietnam, the last full measure of devotion. Men like Maj. Charles L. Kelly.

Kelly was among the first Dustoff pilots killed in action in Vietnam. On July 1, 1964, he refused to withdraw from a hot landing zone, telling ground soldiers admonishing him he’d do so only “when I have your wounded.” A bullet pierced his warrior’s heart, taking his life but not his love. “When I have your wounded” immediately became a Dustoff pilot motto after Kelly’s death.   

Of course, many Dustoff crewmembers did return home, but these heroes were as gallant in wartime as they are disinclined to speak of their daring now. So, what can we Americans do for these, in the truest sense of the word, gentlemen? This is the question the Vietnam Dustoff Association, a pro bono client of my firm, answered, first defining and then instructing with three familiar words: “Fly the mission.”

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Our shared mission — lobbying Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the United States Army Dustoff crews of the Vietnam War -– is simple to state but difficult to achieve. Led by original cosponsoring Senators John Cornyn and Elizabeth Warren, we have obtained the requisite 67 cosponsors for our bill in the Senate, a rare instance of bipartisanship in the 118th Congress. But our work is far from done.

Passage of the Vietnam War Congressional Gold Medal Act requires the same supermajority support in the House of Representatives . There, Representatives Derek Kilmer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are lead cosponsors, but we need more additional cosponsors. Many more.   

Congressional Gold Medal supermajority requirements are a soaring standard, but one that befits our nation’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievement. Besides, numbers that seem daunting to pro bono lawyers hardly blanch Operation Dustoff veterans themselves.

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During the Vietnam War, to be a Dustoff crew member was to accept a 1 in 3 chance of being killed or wounded. Those are daunting numbers. This is simply a nation showing its gratitude.    

Progress for these heroes has been made, but time grows short. By summer, House members will be campaigning in their districts for reelection. What better success to tout on the hustings than cosponsorship of such worthy legislation as H.R. 1015?

Here’s what you can do: Call your representative in the House and ask him or her to cosponsor H.R. 1015. If your representative asks you why, point out the necessary conclusion from a song you know by heart.  

 In “America the Beautiful ,” we laud our nation’s heroes, those “who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” If Dustoff crews, who so loved their wounded, and so cherished mercy in the risks they took to evacuate them, are not these heroes, then nobody is.

That is why the House must act. Our republic is what it celebrates, not only in song of our highest ideals, but also in recognition of countrymen who live them fully. A nation that properly honors its heroes will always find them in abundance when it needs them most.

For the Dustoff crews, the mission is accomplished, but our nation’s duty remains. The House should follow the Senate’s lead and pass H.R. 1015. Gratitude will ensure that the uniquely American beauty of their gentle and merciful love will never fade.

Editor’s note: The author is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, which is providing pro bono assistance to the Vietnam Dustoff Association in support of lobbying efforts to pass the Dustoff Crews of the Vietnam War Congressional Gold Medal Act.

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