Remembering Mama Lee

Also published on The Huffington Post.

I never knew when Mama Lee was born and I don’t remember the exact day in 1995 when she died, but I knew and loved Mama Lee during the ten years she was a homeless Vietnam veteran living on the streets of Santa Monica, California.  Born in Texas, Mama Lee was a full-blooded Comanche Indian whose married name was Yvonne Starsky.  Yvonne served as a military nurse in Vietnam during the 1960s when our government claimed that we had no women in combat’s way.

It was near the end of her second tour of duty in Vietnam when Yvonne stepped on a “bouncing Betty,” a small landmine that was meant to maim, not to kill.  Indeed, the bomb destroyed the inside of both of Yvonne’s legs.  Upon her return to the States, Yvonne took “Mama Lee” as her street name and used vodka as her pain medication.

Her use of vodka as a painkiller caused Mama Lee not to be acceptable as a resident of any homeless shelter.  So, for ten years, Mama Lee spent many days sitting on a bench in front of Santa Monica City Hall and slept in the doorway of the Santa Monica Culinary Union, then at the corner of Fifth and Colorado, in Santa Monica, California.  During the harshest weather, the police would occasionally take Mama Lee to jail for public drunkenness in an effort to protect her health.

It was only during the last two months of Mama Lee’s life that she was permitted to reside in a homeless shelter.  After Mama Lee learned that she needed a heart operation and she was able to secure a doctor’s prescription for vodka as her pain medicine, the homeless shelter agreed to house her.  Unfortunately, Mama Lee died in the homeless shelter before she was able to have her heart operation.

Mama Lee shared the little resources she had with the homeless people she knew.  Recognizing the common bonds among all people, Mama Lee said that the worst treatment a homeless person could receive is to be ignored by people walking by.  She spoke with love and about love to everyone who took the time to speak to her.  Everyone, housed and unhoused, who knew Mama Lee, cared for her.

Well, perhaps not everyone loved her.  One night as she slept in the doorway of the Culinary Union, Mama Lee was robbed.  Upon learning the identity of the robber, Mama Lee said that he needn’t have robbed her because she would have given him the money if he had asked.  I know that to be true.

Although her money was never returned, the robber did eventually apologize to Mama Lee.  For her part, Mama Lee did not hold a grudge against her robber.  The news of her robbery spread among homeless and housed people.  Mama Lee was never robbed again.

Mama Lee, frail and short, appeared under 5 feet tall as she hunched over her ever-present walker.  Because of her diminutive stature, she had to look up to most of the people to whom she spoke.  To me, Mama Lee towered over all.

Despite the constant need and subsequent use of her pain killer, vodka, Mama Lee was acutely aware of her life as a homeless person.  She knew that she was homeless and she never complained about being homeless.  In fact, Mama Lee often consoled other homeless people when they were sad and depressed about their condition.

This was the life of a woman I respected and loved.  My homeless friend, Vietnam veteran, Mama Lee.

I look forward to your comments.


A Sign of the Times: Homeless Veterans

Also published on The Huffington Post.

We’ve all seen a homeless man on a street corner holding a cardboard sign that read something like, “Homeless Veteran… Can You Help?”  We might have asked ourselves, “Could that sign be true?”  The answer is yes!

How many homeless veterans are there?  Who are these homeless veterans?  How can a person who has served our country become homeless?

While we know from the US Census 2000 Veteran Data that there are 26,549,704 veterans living in the US and Puerto Rico , we do not know the exact number of U.S. veterans who are now homeless.  Estimates of the total number of homeless veterans differ greatly.

For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 154,000 veterans are homeless each night, while over 300,000 veterans are homeless at some time during the course of a year.

However, in 1996, The Urban Institute (UI) with the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) determined that of the 2.3 million to 3.5 million people who are homeless during the year in the United States, 23% or 529,000 to 840,000 of them are homeless veterans.

Regardless of the exact number of homeless veterans, there are two definitions that must be met in order for former military personnel to be classified as homeless veteran.  First, a person must first qualify as a veteran for purposes of Title 38 benefits as one who has served in the active military, naval, or air service and was not dishonorably discharged.

Second, a person must meet the definition of “homeless individual” as established by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act:

(1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate 
nighttime residence; and
(2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is 

(A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter 
designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing 
for the mentally ill);
(B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for 
individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
(C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily 
used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Who is a homeless veteran?  Homeless veterans have one or more of the following characteristics:

•  nearly 95% of homeless veterans are male, while 5% are female

•  45% of homeless Veterans have some kind of mental illness

•  over 70% of homeless veterans suffer from alcohol or drug abuse

•  47% served in the Vietnam War

•  53% served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America.

•  67% served in the military for more than three years

•  33% served in a war zone

While it is unfortunate that anyone becomes homeless, veterans are more likely to become homeless than civilians.  Why is this? No one knows for sure.

Researchers have found that military service is not a sole factor causing homelessness.  Rather, studies suggest that military service can be a factor that can lead to personal experiences that can lead directly to homelessness.

For example, in “A Model of Homelessness Among Male Veterans of the Vietnam War Generation” from The American Journal of Psychiatry, authors, Robert Rosenheck and Alan Fontana pointed out that two military factors, combat exposure and participation in atrocities, contribute to “four post-military variables:

(1) low levels of social support upon returning home, 

(2) psychiatric disorders (not including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),

(3) substance abuse disorders, and

(4) being unmarried (including separation and divorce)


Thus, the study determines that it is these “four post-military variables” that can directly lead to homelessness for many veterans.

Combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has been found not to have a direct relationship with homelessness.  Further, it has also been found that homeless combat veterans were no more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than combat veterans who were not homeless.

Homeless veterans also face the same factors that challenge homeless civilians, including the shortage of affordable housing, unavailable employment opportunities and substance abuse.


What is being done to help homeless veterans?

Since 1987, the VA has been the only federal agency providing hands-on assistance directly to homeless people.  However, over the course of a year, the VA only reaches 33% or 100,000 of homeless veterans.  Thus, 200,000 veterans must seek assistance from local government agencies and service organizations in their communities.

The U.S. Department of Labor Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program awards grants to grantees that provide case management approaches to link the veterans to training and employment opportunities.

Homeless veterans may find additional assistance through programs funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

On February 17th, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Action 2009 which included $1.5 billion for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) through which grantees can provide services to prevent and house homeless people.

As we await the implementation of HPRP, possibly the most effective programs for homeless veterans at this moment are the 250 community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups.”

Pictured, in connection with this article, is the amazing sculpture, “Homeless Warrior,” by legendary sculptor E.D., Miracle copyright 2008.