By Sydney Franklin
The protesters, a group of homeless vets camped outside the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said it took two weeks for the federal agency to acknowledge them. The group contended the response was not enough.
“Since they won’t answer our questions here, we will take it to the commander-in-chief and tell him to talk to the VA,” said Navy veteran and protester John Penley. .
VA officials met with campers on a recent morning, listening to their concerns. They also offered to help individual veterans with immediate questions or needs.
But Penley said the small group of campers were not there to simply discuss their own needs.
“We are here to represent all homeless veterans,” said Penley. “I want to take care of myself, but we aren’t just here for ourselves.”
He said the group’s next step will be proposing an emergency hearing in Congress to talk about housing for homeless veterans. There is also talk of a march from the department to the White House.
The small group of homeless veterans and supporters first gathered at the department on Friday, Oct. 6, hoping to stage a 24-hour sleep-in protesting their grievances.
Denied access to the building by security officers, the group staked their claim to the sidewalk.
“They block us,” said Bill Minuitti, a homeless veteran, former marine in Vietnam and volunteer for Veterans for Peace. “It’s symbolic of how they’re blocking us from getting the care we need.”
While some have stayed overnight with security on guard, others have protested outside the building weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We aren’t trying to break the rules,” said Frosty Bibbee. “But they don’t handle our questions.”
Minuitti said that the protest is somewhat unorganized, admitting they needed more supporters and materials to make their case.
“We’ve got to get our thoughts together,” said Miniutti. “But we need a permanent liaison in place at the VA.”
Leaders in the department did not respond to calls regarding the protest but said in an email that they “respect and support the freedom of citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.”
“The VA’s highest priority is to make sure that veterans have access to the services they have earned and deserve,” wrote the email.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimated that across the country, 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and twice that amount will experience homelessness during the course of a year. Longmarchhome.org estimates that 2,500 homeless veterans live in the District alone. But an annual point-in-time count, conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments set the number far lower, finding 710 homeless veterans throughout the region on a day in January 2012.
While 47 percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam War Era, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 3,700 veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom take part in its homeless-outreach programs as of mid-2010.
“An average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day,” said Minuitti. “Something has to be done. Something has to be done yesterday.”