by Max Brantley
Stephens Media columnist Steve Brawner takes off from the fight over placement of a veterans service center in Little Rock to the failure of the country to adequately serve millitary people when they come home from the wars they've fought. He points no finger at neighbors resisting the center:
We shouldn’t blame the Downtown Neighborhood Association because members don’t want a clinic there. We should blame the government, and ourselves, because every necessary service wasn’t long ago in place — for the existing homeless veterans, and for the new ones that the War on Terror would produce.
As a society, we’ve pretty much said, “Welcome home, but we’re not going to do a whole lot to welcome you here.”
We know that wars mess up people. We know some people come back physically wounded. And we know that others come back with other kinds of wounds. After fighting in a war, some veterans cannot live with the peace.
Now that we are letting them sleep in the streets, how do we live with ourselves?
This is the nub of my complaint about the city's reaction to date. It depicts needy veterans as a community nuisance. There's been precious little talk — and no action — about serving people in need. But we've heard an awful lot of talk about the perceived danger posed by a group of men and women that we otherwise love to invoke with hands over heart in political campaigns and with misty-eyed reverence for a silent moment before the burgers and beer begin on Memorial Day.
(Please, don't tell me again about the city's "kind" offer to shunt veterans into the dump far removed from the center of town in which it wants to segregate other homeless people. The VA operates accredited rehabilitation treatment facilities. I've seen the national accreditation standards it meets. The idea that the old rescue mission — abandoned by its current owner for its unsuitability — could meet those rigorous standards of accessibility and integration into the community is dubious.)
UPDATE: U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin made it clear today that he's doing everything he can to derail opening of the center on Main Street by demanding a meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. I know that local officials have prepared answers to questions Griffin has posed, but they will be relayed to him by Shinseki's office, not local officials. If Griffin succeeds in killing the Main Street plan, it will cost a million in tax money — probably much more to start anew a planning process in addition to the lease kill fee — and delay a needed expansion of veterans services here for years. The city of Little Rock homeless shelter being fitfully pieced together in a remote site on Confederate Boulevard isn't suitable or adaptable for use by the veterans and federal tax money can't be commingled with other services there. Your allegedly pro-veteran congressman's future flag waving should be judged in the context of his work here.
UPDATE II: Dr. Tina McClain, director of mental health services for the VA here, wrote the following letter to downtown residents raising questions about safety of children from people being treated for mental health problems.
Regardless of location, children in Little Rock are exposed to individuals with mental illness. Overall 1 in 4 people have some type of mental illness, and the idea that the “mentally ill” are not already present in the area is simply wrong. They are there, and go unrecognized. They live their lives just like those fortunate enough to not have a mental health condition. Untreated or inadequately treated mental illness is one of many contributing factors to homelessness. The fear related to putting children at risk should be higher today since the street homeless already in the area are not in treatment.
Evidence shows that this program will decrease the number of homeless on the streets, not increase the number. This program provides treatment. Several current enrollees in our program attended the DNA meeting on January 12th, and never became hostile, aggressive, or otherwise displayed any behavior other than that of perfect ladies and gentlemen, despite the barrage of derogatory comments they heard. I would be surprised if most in attendance even knew they were “homeless Veterans”. One of those Veterans, the speaker, was even challenged when he attempted to vote as a resident in the downtown area, presumably because he simply lives his life in the area and was not known to the DNA.
Stigma and ignorance lead to fear, and fear exaggerates perceived risks. CAVHS, regardless of our clinic location, will continue to combat this stigma through education, responsiveness, and compassion. CAVHS will staff the clinic with VA police officers to address any problems requiring police intervention. Again, not all Veterans treated in our Veterans Day Treatment Program suffer from mental illness.
Lastly, it should also be recognized that the proposed site for the Day Resource Center on Confederate Blvd is also near a neighborhood, though not as large a neighborhood, and is near a magnet school. I don’t believe the risks would be any higher to the children in the downtown location than at the Confederate Blvd. location.
STATEMENT FROM REP. TIM GRIFFIN
On January 12, 2012, I sent Secretary Shinseki a letter urging the VA to suspend its plan to relocate the Little Rock Drop-In Day Treatment Center until further input from the community could be considered. I also requested that the VA provide me with the policy and procedures for the relocation site selection process. Since then, I’ve been monitoring this issue and remain in close contact with VA officials. I’ve been assured that they are gathering facts and preparing an official response to my inquiry. I also have requested an opportunity to discuss this matter personally with Secretary Shinseki. I will continue to fight to ensure the concerns of local residents, government officials, and community leaders are heard