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Published: Friday, 11/16/2007

This Thanksgiving, think of the thousands of homeless veterans

DETROIT - Some people remembered their comrades on Veterans' Day last Sunday. They'll do it again on Memorial Day in May.

They will mostly remember the dead, those who died in America's many battles and many wars, from Valley Forge to Gettysburg to Fallujah. They'll put little flags on their graves.

But for Tobi Geibig, himself a Vietnam veteran, every day is veterans' day. And he doesn't spend much time in cemeteries. He devotes his life to trying to get homeless veterans off the streets and into housing, a job, some kind of normal life.

Too many of them, he says "never made it all the way back." Last week, a new study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that a quarter of all the homeless people in the nation were veterans. That figure was especially shocking, given that barely a tenth of the adult population ever wore the uniform.

The situation in Michigan is, if anything, worse, Mr. Geibig said. "I would guess it's about 30, maybe 35 percent," he said.

"And it's getting worse; it's going to get worse."

He does everything he can to make it better. An accountant by training, he now spends all his time running the nonprofit Michigan Veterans Foundation, based in Detroit's hardscrabble Cass Corridor.

Fourteen years ago, Mr. Geibig, now 56, lost his job when a major corporation downsized, and he volunteered to help out the foundation, which was in a financial mess. The outfit was in such bad shape that Mr. Geibig didn't take any salary for two years.

Somehow the temporary, volunteer job became more than full time, and turned into his life's calling. Now, he does his best to provide everything from temporary housing to job training and skills classes to the veterans who need his services.

"We see them from all wars. I've had guys who serviced President Kennedy's PT-109 to veterans of the Gulf War," he says. He helps them pick up the pieces, get clean and sober, figure it out.

Yes, he even sees some homeless women veterans. "They are harder to help, generally. They are usually in bad shape by the time we see them. It's harder for women; they aren't socialized to become warriors. They have a lot more to deal with."

For male soldiers, he says the problem is that they are given little or no help making the transition back into the world.

"Generally, there's about a six-year cycle before they become homeless. They come back, and they are there, but they aren't really there. They have an enormous startle response. They can't really relate to their families. Eventually, they are going to end up divorced.

"They are going to end up jobless, and then they are going to end up on the street," without many resources, emotional or financial.

He does the best he can. One of the few things that he is outspokenly bitter about is that - even as a new war is raging - the Bush Administration is openly cutting funding for the Veterans' Administration. Two months before the Iraq War started, the VA cut off health care to 164,000 veterans, many of them low-income.

Now, bizarrely, the President has submitted budget proposals that call for actually cutting health-care funding for veterans in future years, just as the system is apt to be flooded by returning veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan. "If I needed to make an appointment to see a mental health counselor, it would take a month," he said.

So the Michigan Veterans' Foundation tries to do what it can. Mr. Geibig tries to win grants and donations. His next goal is to start a factory, so that some homeless veterans can possibly make and sell products to support themselves.

Yes, he welcomes donations. But what he'd really like is that you think at Thanksgiving of the nation's living veterans, an estimated 194,254 of whom spent last night on the streets.

"Without what veterans have done, ever since this country was founded, we wouldn't have any holidays, or any freedoms to celebrate," he said.

Forty years ago, U.S. Sen. Fred Harris (D., Okla.) was one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate when the Detroit riot broke out, just days after a similar riot had engulfed Newark.

He urged President Lyndon Johnson to appoint a special commission to investigate. That led to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also called the Kerner Commission), which produced one of the most famous government reports in history. It began, "Our nation is moving towards two societies - one black, one white; separate and unequal."

This weekend, the Eisenhower Foundation will be holding hearings at Wayne State University law school as part of a process to update the Kerner Commission report, four decades later.

The hearings will be chaired by Mr. Harris, one of only two surviving members of that commission. "We want to find out what has changed since that report," he said.

It should, at the very least, be interesting.

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