U.S. compassion not a zero-sum game

An Advocate Editorial


In the bizarre subtext of Paris’ recent terror attacks, people have turned to Facebook to share their sudden, convenient concerns for the U.S. homeless veteran population as an excuse to not offer asylum to Syrian refugees. It turns out it’s easier to share a “veterans-should-come-first” meme offering inaccurate statistics than it is to develop a full understanding of a complex international issue.

What these folks have seemingly failed to recognize is that the Obama administration has been specifically addressing the issue of veteran homelessness for years. In 2010, the administration enacted Opening Doors, a strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness among former service members. Since then, veteran homelessness has decreased by 36 percent, and unsheltered homelessness has decreased by nearly 50 percent, resulting in tens of thousands fewer veterans on the streets.

In 2014, the National Alliance to End Homelessness calculated that veterans constitute 8.6 percent of the U.S. homeless population — down 67.4 percent since 2009.     

We have this stereotype of homeless people as exclusively single, white men living in boxes and begging for money on the streets, when, in reality, many are families of all backgrounds living in cars, shelters and anywhere they can find a warm place to spend the night.

But the realities of homelessness are ignored in favor of using images of white, destitute, Vietnam-era veterans to disenfranchise Syrian refugees.

These Syrians are fleeing a civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people, half of whom are civilians, and displaced 12 million more. They have been through more than the average American complaining on social media can even comprehend. So how can someone look at other human beings (many children, mind you) at this level of need and consider them undeserving of our time, money, rights and care? Should we leave them to be beaten, raped, killed, shelled with artillery and gassed by their government — simply because they aren’t U.S. citizens?

Some suggest we forsake refugees because Islamist combatants may be hiding among them. This ignores the extremely strenuous vetting process that takes place before the United States admits them. Once they get here, refugees from any country don’t live exclusively off “handouts,” as many suggest. That’s simply not possible. They receive a placement grant of $1,850 from the U.S. Department of State. This includes pre-arrival, reception, initial housing, food, clothing, referral service and social program costs. And only those refugees who have been in the United States for at least three months are eligible for these benefits. Refugees needing cash assistance can get temporary financial aid and social services through the federal program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

This is a particularly stark welcome, since this population consists almost exclusively of children and families. A mere 2 percent of those refugees admitted so far are single, military-aged men — a shockingly low statistic due to the heavy toll Bashar al-Assad and Islamist extremist groups have taken on Syria’s male population.

Many Americans don’t want to give up their hard-earned money and tax dollars to anyone seen as even remotely foreign. But what would happen if we refused these people? That money almost certainly would not go to U.S. homeless or veteran populations. And most people against Syrian refugees coming into the country would go back to their lives — not thinking twice about the marginalized groups they were once so suddenly and conveniently concerned for.

We’re glad there are people concerned about veterans and homeless populations. When President Obama announced Syrian refugees’ admission into our country, people finally gave homeless veterans the attention they deserve — but to do so at the expense of innocent, also homeless, victims of war is not in line with our national values or history. We have always strived to be a safe haven for political and religious refugees from all over the world.

Attempting to alleviate refugee suffering won’t add to the misery of our nation’s homeless people. To engage in divisive politics is to play into the hands of extremists like ISIS. These groups require us to reject our inclusive values and democratic ideals in order to manifest their twisted worldview of the “West vs. Islam.”

May we not let this bigoted exclusivity define our era of American history.

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