To Those Who Risk Their Lives for Us, We Owe a Better Welcome Home


They say that twilight is the most dangerous time on the battlefield. Half day, half night, the light plays tricks on your eyes, and the time plays tricks on your body. It is in this moment of transition that you are most vulnerable to an attack.

But this battlefield transition is not the only time of transition that brings danger to our soldiers. The transition from combat to civilian life is a minefield of an entirely different variety. In many ways, this transition will be the hardest one they will ever face. And it is their decision to serve as our protectors that sets the stage for the later hardship our veterans often face.

We often forget, when we talk of their sacrifice, that the rest of us had a head start. They left just when we were going off to college or getting our first job, and by the time they came back, we had already climbed a few rungs on the ladder. They have some catching up to do—and some baggage that’s weighing them down.

How, for example, will they find a place to live?

They typically have limited savings, no job, and virtually no income or wealth. They usually don’t have a college education or a credit history or a social network of friends and coworkers and mentors to guide them. They have spent their adult years defending us. They have had no exposure to —or time forsake.—such things.

What they do have, all too often, are painful memories. They may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. They may have suicidal thoughts. Suicides, after all, claim more military lives than actual combat. They may turn to substance abuse to cope. They likely will pass these problems on to their children, and then their children are likelier to have suicidal thoughts as well. Soldiers never suffer alone. Families suffer with them. Communities suffer with them.

These are some of the reasons why veterans are more likely to be homeless than the rest of the population, why they tend to remain homeless for longer periods of time, and why they have worse health, on average, than the rest of the homeless population. The majority of veterans report that they did not receive assistance in finding a job or getting into college or securing permanent housing when they left the service. It’s a testament to their resilience (and good fortune) that over 80 percent of them didn’t wind up homeless.

But if we focus only on homelessness because it happens to be the most visible symptom, we miss millions of veterans who are just barely clinging to their homes. Here in Los Angeles, one survey found that veterans who had permanent housing “were virtually unanimous in their views that if it were not for family or friends, they would have been homeless.”

That’s why the Department of Veterans Affairs runs a home loan program. It’s why the Department of Housing and Urban Development partners with the VA to give vouchers to homeless vets with a disability. Without these programs, the problem would be much worse. Unfortunately, they’re simply not enough.

Those programs aren’t fully meeting today’s challenges. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have multiplied the number of veterans in need faster than the VA can keep up. This generation of vets is applying for VA home loans at much lower rates than their predecessors. Many of them say they don’t even know the program exists. And the HUD-VA supportive housing vouchers? They only help 50,000 vets a year.

happy young american military family reunion

This is not a lost cause. These brave men and women know how to thrive when they’re given a fair shot. Veterans have a higher homeownership rate than the rest of the population specifically because the last generation put the VA home loans to good use, and the number of homeless veterans has been declining as the HUD-VASH program has been expanding.

But the government shouldn’t be alone in this effort. We all owe our protectors a chance to have the American dream for themselves and their families—and history has shown that they more than pay back our faith and investment in them. When Congress passed the famous GI Bill in 1944, the veterans of World War II used the mortgages and college educations they received to build the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

Here at USC, we have made a similar commitment. Our president Max Nikias recently joined with retired general David Petraeus announce a program that offers full undergraduate tuition to all academically qualified veterans—and they called on other private research universities to do the same.

If we can do it in education, we can do it in housing. This is one reason why Home Matters has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation on the Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge – and getting a veteran into a newly designed, grow-in-place home. We need more housing grant programs like this, which provides money to build and fix up housing for veterans. We need to build as many homes as it takes to end veteran homelessness. We need to reach out to every veteran when it’s their turn to come home and make sure that’s exactly what they get. After all, we wouldn’t have our home if it weren’t for them.

How to Capture on Film All That Home is About…in 60 Seconds or Less


As a student I got to know a man called Frank. He had lost his home, and his neighborhood, and was living on the streets and shelters. He wanted to go back to a world where he had a family, a community. Yet he had no hope. His story of yearning to return home stayed with me for years.

I thought of Frank and his family when collaborating with Home Matters, a coalition that envisions a future where all of us have a home.

It seems simple. Home should be a given. Home is where you grow up. It is the place where you are nurtured, thrive, spend time with your family and community. A home is what you need for health, safety, and success in life.

These days, however, too few of us have a home like that. Some quick facts:

  • More than half a million people are homeless.
  • 55% of all Americans are making big sacrifices just to pay their rent or mortgage.
  • Thousands of communities lack good schools, parks and grocery stores.

These statistics are particularly striking because home is woven into our national mythology: owning a home is part of the American Dream. Of course, economic changes and globalization have made this dream no longer attainable for many.

Home Matters didn’t come to us saying that everyone needs a single-family home with a white picket fence and a four-door Ford out front. Their dream is different. They think no one should have to choose between food and shelter; that no one should have to live in sub-standard housing, attend a school without school supplies or attention, or eat unhealthy food; that no one should have to sacrifice everything just to put a roof over their head.

That dream sparked the idea for a short video series for their new #OpenTheDoor campaign.

Our challenge from Home Matters was to create a spot that would get people to rethink the idea of home—to understand what it really means. Home is more than shelter. Home includes your house or dwelling, your school, and all your local resources. How do you convey all the ways home matters in 60 seconds? In 15 seconds?

We created three short films: “American Dream Dollhouse,” “Foundation,” and “Sacrifice”. In “American Dream Dollhouse” we sought to make clear the stark contrast between what every child dreams of – a safe home in a loving community – and the reality now faced by the majority of Americans. We used stop motion animation to instill a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity in our viewers, and prompt them to keep dreaming.

Home Matters still

Above all, we wanted the pieces to convey our hope that together, we can build a better future. A hope that this New American Dream can still be within reach – that a safe and steady home can be made accessible to all. Because Home Matters too much to settle for anything less.

Urban Design in Our Time of Crisis: A Revolution Waiting to Happen


We may—or may not—be on the brink of a housing revolution. You may not have noticed yet, but this moment is an opportunity. Whether we seize it is entirely up to us.

It reminds me a bit of the wonderful work by the economist Alexander Field. In his book A Great Leap Forward, he makes the provocative argument that the Great Depression was “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.” In the midst of the worst unemployment, poverty, and homelessness anyone can remember, our economy became 40 percent more productive—an almost unthinkably unprecedented accomplishment.

How can that be?

Well, in the 1930s, inventors gave us the first commercial plane, the first television, the first refrigerator, and the first car with V-8 engines, automatic transmissions, power steering, radios, heaters, and hydraulic breaks. Almost all the major technologies of the postwar boom can be traced back to the Great Depression.

One reason, argues Field, is that “adversity summons reservoirs of initiative and creativity that have long-term positive consequences.” For historians, this argument isn’t as controversial as it seems. Titans of industry like John Rockefeller and Jay Gould cemented their strategic advantage—and their fortune—by buying when everyone else was selling. “You want to be greedy when others are fearful,” said Warren Buffett in the depths of the Great Recession. Sure enough, research published in the Harvard Business Review has shown that the most successful firms after recessions aren’t necessarily the ones who were strongest in good times or the ones who cut costs in bad times—they were the ones who explored new markets and invested in research and development when everyone else was running for the exits.

This finding wouldn’t come as a surprise to psychologists either. The latest research, led by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that the most successful people in school, at work, and on the battlefield are not necessarily the smartest or the strongest or the most charming—they’re the ones who have “grit,” the ones who persist against all odds, who dig deep when everyone else is ready to give up.

That’s where real greatness is made.

It turns out that our parents were right. Adversity builds character. Or as Plato famously said, “a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.” Faced with such necessity, the inventors of the 1930s created great affordable, reproducible innovations for the masses.

Now, we find ourselves in a housing affordability crisis.

Since the housing bubble popped, Americans have flooded into rental units in the cities, where construction has been increasingly restricted for several decades. The combination of rising demand and dwindling supply has had the effect that any Econ 101 student would predict: Rents are soaring, and incomes aren’t keeping up.

Just like the Great Depression, this is a tremendous tragedy, and with some foresight could have taken steps to reduce its depth. But the crisis is here. We cannot undo the harm that has befallen our fellow Americans. The only thing we can do—indeed, the thing we must do—is to summon those “reservoirs of initiative and creativity” to build a New American Dream without rent burden.

Already, we are beginning to see the sparks of innovation lighting up the firmament of real estate development and architectural design. In Boston and Seattle, micro-apartment complexes are redefining what it means to be efficient with space, minimizing square footage but preserving high-quality amenities. In Denver and Los Angeles, entrepreneurs are catering to residents who value affordability and community over solitude, sharing common areas with their fellow residents in “co-housing” arrangements.


These solutions are not appropriate for everyone—or every neighborhood. Increasing population density without offering sufficient public services such as public transit, for example, can stress a city’s infrastructure and sap valuable time in commuting costs. But every great innovation, from cars to planes to televisions, was controversial at first. Every advance comes at a cost. In times of crisis, we cannot shy away from trying new ideas, with the understanding that we will all benefit from more productive, less divided urban communities in the long run.

Above all, community stakeholders must have the vision to see that now is the time to invest—and the fortitude not to shy away from innovative new construction when their fellow Americans need them the most.

We can all play a part in this transformation, whether we live in these communities or not. When Field investigated the great inventions of the 1930s, he found that “adversity” wasn’t the only necessary ingredient. Public investment was the other crucial catalyst. The New Deal built the roads and the runways and the transmission lines without which those private inventions would never have been accessible or affordable for the vast majority of Americans. We, as citizens, have an opportunity to replicate this success in the crisis of our own time.

This moment of opportunity is one of the reasons that I have partnered with Home Matters in writing these blog posts. Their Design Challenge from last year is a step toward seizing this opportunity. All across our country, architects and developers and urban planners are poised with the skills and the passion to invent a new urban design that preserves our beautiful housing stock while building a more inclusive community for all who come seeking a home.

When necessity has beckoned, generations past have answered the call. Let us heed their example and design a New American Dream that generations to come will look upon and live in with pride.