We will lose 50 percent of Oregon’s veterans over the next 20 years. Currently, 54 percent of them are over age 65. Many of those served in Vietnam and never received the appreciation for their service that our World War II veterans and newer ones like me enjoy.
Every night, 1,300 Oregon veterans sleep on the street or in shelters. We lost Maj. Tom Egan 11 years ago this winter, when he succumbed to the cold while sleeping outdoors. It’s too late for us to save him, but it isn’t too late for us to give others the honor, respect and housing they deserve.
Often, the resources to help are available, just inaccessible. The federal Veterans Administration spends about $10,000 per year per veteran in Oregon, including health and housing programs. These programs include health care, disability benefits, long-term care at a Veterans Home, rehabilitation services and housing vouchers through the HUD-VASH program.
It can be difficult for even healthy, housed veterans to access these benefits. At the state level, we are able to allocate only about $50 per year per veteran, but we leverage it several times over by using it to connect veterans to their federal benefits.
The VA is a famously bureaucratic organization. Mentally ill, houseless veterans are often not in a position to fill out forms to make healthcare appointments, connect with disability benefits or find a place to live. Too often, they end up in the emergency rooms of our hospitals, where their physicians struggle to stabilize them because they can’t make decisions for themselves and don’t have family members who are able or willing to help. Our county Veterans Services officers do great work, but they can’t help individuals who aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves.
Oregon started a public guardianship (OPG) program in 2015 to care for people unable to care for themselves. OPG will intervene only in cases where (1) the lack of a guardian would present a safety risk to the protected person, (2) no less restrictive measures would address that safety risk, (3) the protected person lacks funds to pay a private guardian, and (4) no friend or family member will serve as the guardian.
The protected person has the right to contest a guardianship and be heard before a judge. The guardianship lasts only as long as necessary to restore the protected person to a more secure and sustainable condition.
To fully meet the needs of Oregon’s population of 4.2 million people, OPG would need about 30 employees. Right now, we have only funded a few positions statewide. As a result, many people who could receive assistance do not. It would take only three guardians to meet the needs of Oregon’s 300,000 veterans. With them, we could connect veterans with HUD-VASH vouchers, Veterans Homes, supportive housing, disability benefits, VA healthcare and any number of other programs. We could save lives.
During the 2020 short session, I’ll introduce a bill to fund those positions and to help fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s promise in his Second Inaugural Address.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln realized what we must remember — that achieving a just and peaceful society takes more than just ending a war. It requires us to care for our veterans. We will lose too many of them in the years to come. Let’s give a last measure of dignity and respect to those who once promised to give the last full measure of their lives to protect us.
Marty Wilde represents House District 11 in the Oregon Legislature and is a military veteran.