ANDREA PLATE WRITES- Remember when President Obama vowed to end homelessness by 2011? Then 2014? The rest, as they say, is history – which tends to repeat itself – or, in the case of veteran homelessness, simply goes on. And on.
Last week, the US Vets Initiative — the largest nonprofit in America publicly dedicated to ending homelessness in the veteran population— held its fundraising, consciousness-raising Annual Gala Salute. Many in the dinner audience at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (perhaps better known as the “Pretty Woman” setting for the iconic 1990 movie of that name) found the spirited event both moving and troubling.
Two high-flying honorees were featured: Joseph Czyzk, a two-tour Seabee (US Navy Mobile Construction) turned Mercury Air Group Chair and US Vets board member; and veterans’ advocate Jeremy Zimmer, CEO of UTA (United Talent Artists), also leader of the charge to raise $10 million for an expansive project that is expected to become America’s largest supportive housing and service center at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ flagship campus in West LA.
Also present, of course, were veterans’ families and friends; various and sundry social justice advocates (including a former Navy veteran who has guest lectured at LMU); and a small but committed (and sometimes pleasantly rowdy) contingent of LMU faculty and alumni, including recent LMU alumnus Kevin Shon, currently enrolled in UCLA’s widely known MSW (Master of Social Work) program, now interning in homeless services at Union Station:
“I want to work with all [varieties of] homeless,” he said, adding, “I may not know all veterans, but I feel that I owe all veterans.”
Also at the LMU banquet table was the Pacific Century Institute’s Executive Director Angie Pak, as well as Asia Media International’s Executive Editor Cristina Pedler, and AMI Founder Tom Plate.
LMU offers multiple programs in support of military returnees, including its adult learning partnership with US Vets named “Veteran2peer,” formed in 2019 with a mission to train and certify military veterans who want to help fellow returnees transition less painfully, and more productively, to civilian life.
The overall tone of the gala was both celebratory and cautionary. In a brief but moving address, Stephen J. Peck, President and CEO of US Vets – himself a Vietnam Marine officer – detailed the organization’s commitment to improving mental health and suicide prevention services. (Recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs noted a drop in the daily rate of veteran suicides, to 17 – from a previously publicized 22!). Board Chair Mike Roos offered a passionate, reasoned case for why those of affluence (especially at the dinner) should do more – and give more – to the cause.
A robust roster of celebrities saluted the stars and stripes – singer/dancer/actress Tinashe belted out the national anthem; America’s Next Top Model/TV celebrity Tyra Banks led with loving remarks about her brother, a major in the Air Force, as well as her renowned passion for fashion: “Supporting veterans is always stylish;” and actor Jay Ellis (Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Finch” in “Top Gun: Maverick”) riffed on his recent movie military-themed star turn.
The evening’s true honorees were those tens of thousands of men and women who served their country but now sleep in streets, in shelters, or in medical and psychiatric wards across America. Even so, a clearer, brighter vision of hope and passion flooded the ballroom floor last week – albeit one reliant on continued commitment and hard work – a future America in which those same men and women have beds to sleep in each night. And food. And jobs…Is that too much to ask?
Andrea Plate, a licensed clinical social worker who spent 15 years at the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs, is a member of the US Vets Board of Directors and a Senior Lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in the Department of Sociology.