The sight of the man in such obvious poverty just yards from the seat of American power made a strong impression on Johnston. He paid him regular visits over the next two years, bearing food and clothing, until one day the man disappeared.
Across the country in California, Susan Angell was getting to know a different kind of homelessness: that among military veterans.
Angell had just secured her first job as a social worker, at a veterans center in San Jose. Among her early clients, one stood out. “If you looked at him on the street, you’d think he had no skills, was just kind of bumming around,” Angell said. “But he was so bright, so capable, and yet he didn’t have a place to live. It took a couple of years of working with him until he thought he had earned or deserved a home.”
Today, Johnston, 54, and Angell, 59, are trying to find homes for every veteran in the country. Both hold leadership positions in their respective agencies — Johnston at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Angell at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For their unusual collaboration, and the results it has helped produce, Johnston, Angell and their staffs have been collectively nominated for a prestigious federal workers’ award, one of nine 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, sometimes called “Sammies” or “government Oscars.” The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which administers the awards, will announce the winners in September.
The Johnston-Angell team is a finalist for the Citizen Services Medal. The two share the nomination with HUD’s Ann Oliva and Laure Rawson, and the VA’s Lisa Pape, Peter Dougherty, Vince Kane, Stephanie Robinson and Timothy Underwood.
According to HUD’s latest estimates, there are 636,000 homeless people in the United States, and more than 67,000 of them — 14 percent of homeless adults — are military veterans.
Just 10 years ago, most homeless veterans had served in Vietnam, the ongoing victims of a war long past. But a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has made homelessness among veterans a fresh and urgent issue.
Recognizing this urgency, President Obama — who spent the day before his inauguration at a homeless shelter — has made a priority of reducing homelessness in general and ending veteran homelessness. These tasks fell to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who announced in 2009 an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Johnston and Angell were tapped to lead the effort.
“We come to the mission with different expertise and assets,” Angell said recently. “They have the housing, and we have the clinical care. So when we put the two together, that really is the best way that we’re going to end homelessness.”