A 1996 national survey estimates that approximately a quarter of America’s homeless are veterans of military service, those once among our society’s strongest and healthiest citizens. The 2.8-million member American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, has fought for federal homeless veterans assistance for generations. Its community-based volunteers are their brothers’ keeper. The American Legion is comprised of nearly 15,000 local “posts” organized within 55 state level departments. The American Legion Department of Pennsylvania operates an exemplary transitional housing program for homeless veterans.
In 1987, under the leadership of then Department Commander Ronald F. Conley of Pittsburgh, the department’s Board of Directors created the program. As a result of the American Legion’s program, veterans and their families, who otherwise would sleep on the streets, are housed in any of the five Legion shelters in Pittsburgh, the one in Philadelphia, or the other in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Males and females – some single, some with children – are given a fighting chance to get back on their feet and as many as 20 people are housed nightly in each facility.
The program is a success, with 85% of the clients finding work and becoming productive members of society. Many become reunited with hitherto estranged families. Some start families.
The birth of the program belied tales of Capitol gridlock. Both the Pennsylvania American Legion and the National Organization lobbied Congress to enact legislation in 1987 allowing the corporation to purchase seven properties from the Department of Veterans Affairs, at a 50% discount, for the sole purpose of creating transitional housing. Those were houses on which the owners defaulted on their GI Bill mortgages. Ninety-five percent of the corporation’s funding is provided by the American Legion Department of Pennsylvania, including a personnel start-up contribution of $35,000.
Non-Legionnaires are responding the American Legion’s missionary zeal. Members of the American Legion Auxiliary, an affiliated organization with its own charter, volunteer in the shelters. American Legion Auxiliary Juniors, teenage young ladies who believe in helping people also participate. Following the Legion’s example, Pittsburgh members of the Jewish War Veterans operate a similar program.