Michelle Obama stepped to the microphone at a White House event this spring, and with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, highlighted the scandal of homeless veterans, noting that "roughly 58,000 veterans experience homelessness in America today." She called that fact "a moral outrage."
That strikes a chord for Frank DiCara, 88, an East Baltimorean who had his own struggles as a veteran coming home from World War II. "I was watching television the other day, and they had an African American guy from the Air Corps, and he was at a shelter," Mr. DiCara said recently. "He'd been in the service, and now he was looking for shelter. A veteran that went out to fight for this country!"
Born into a family of six children on East Pratt Street to parents who came from Sicily, Mr. DiCara had found work as a teenager in a wartime factory assembling bomber plane wings. By 1944 his three older brothers had all gone into the service, and he got his own draft notice just before Christmas.
He was shipped off to the Philippines with all the other 18-year-old boys, many sobbing and crying because they missed home. He was on Leyte, Tacloban, Cebu and Samar.
Coming back after the war, though, he got the runaround from potential employers, even his boss at the former factory job. "Nobody was hiring," he says. "I couldn't find a job being a veteran."
Mr. DiCara had a place to sleep thanks to his mother's roof, but civilian life struck him as cold. One memory still burns. "I was riding the streetcar — cost you a nickel," he says, "and there was a group there talking. One guy who was sitting to one side of me — I wasn't in uniform. He said he wished the war would've lasted a couple more years because he was making a lot of money."
One day Mr. DiCara was walking the sidewalks still jobless when a man asked him for directions. It was his old supervisor, suddenly horrified to find a young vet he knew, idled without work. He told Mr. DiCara to come see him Monday morning and he'd have a job. DiCara showed up at Crown Cork & Seal Co. the next week and started a career that lasted over four decades.
But the Capra-esque ending doesn't remove the sting. Mr. DiCara's experience points to what remains unchanged about veterans' returning home, but also what has changed. Jobs like the one he found aren't in the picture today. Compounding the problem of finding shelter, the jobless rate among veterans remains higher than for the general population.
The situation is improving slightly. Since the White House announced the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness in June, the effort has gained over 200 pledges from cities, including Baltimore, signing on to end the condition in 2015. A recent survey by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Interagency Council on Homelessness and Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that the number of veterans sleeping on the street had dropped nearly 40 percent in the last four years. Still, a symposium on Ending Veterans Homelessness here in Baltimore a few weeks ago questioned whether the 2015 goal is realistic.
The chance encounter that finally got Mr. DiCara a job allowed him to have the family and community life that he has led for so long since then. When he was 21 years old, he proposed to his childhood sweetheart, who said "yes," certain Mr. DiCara would be a good provider. He bought a ring for her at a jewelry store on Eastern Avenue.
His life has had a happy ending. But he wonders what it would look like if he hadn't had the chance encounter with a former supervisor willing to offer him work. Consider that Veterans Day. We need more opportunities so that veterans today can take the same road that Mr. DiCara did.
David A. Taylor is the author of "Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America" and" The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy." Twitter: @dataylor1.