An Interview With Michael Hyacinthe, Regional Veteran Engagement Specialist, Habitat for Humanity Michigan
Part One: THEN
Monday, June 22nd marked the 76th anniversary of the GI Bill. When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation in 1944, he wrote that “With the signing of this bill a well-rounded program of special veterans’ benefits is nearly completed. It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.” That was certainly the intent, and the impact for many veterans. Many White veterans. While the GI Bill didn’t explicitly exclude people based on race, the way it was implemented and explicit racism in state and local policy and the real estate and lending industries had the effect of largely excluding African Americans. Progress toward equity under the GI Bill occurred because of the passage of civil rights laws two decades later.
The GI Bill is certainly an important piece of public policy, and has done a lot of good for all veterans over the years. But the drastic difference between its stated goals and the actual outcomes it generated also make the GI Bill a prime example of how policies, directly and indirectly, established a system of racial inequity and disparities that have compounded to this day.
To dig a little deeper into the GI Bill and its impact on veterans of color over the last 76 years, we talked with Michael Hyacinthe, Regional Veteran Engagement Specialist for Habitat for Humanity Michigan and an African American Navy veteran who lives in Grand Rapids.
Could you talk a little bit about the GI Bill and the history of it, and how it created racial disparities, particularly in housing access?
With the GI Bill and other policies, the federal government would often create language and let the states interpret it. In this case, if the state’s intentions are biased or negative, the state will do what they want and the language of the legislation does not forbid them from acting in such a negative, racist way. The federal government was in a position where they were still a part of a racist mentality, but they didn’t want to take the fall for it, so they just created a blank slate for the states so that the states could be the bad guys in denying benefits to African American veterans.
The origin of a law or policy and its intentions could be good for one specific group, like the GI Bill was for veterans, but the actual way the policies are distributed or created and implemented just continue to be biased towards a specific demographic, in this case, Black veterans.
As a Black veteran yourself, what do you think that felt like?
You think about the trauma and the PTSD that many of these veterans who served in combat during World War II and even after experienced and then they have to come back and deal with that trauma on top of the trauma regarding the inability to live where they want and do what they want to flourish. But yet they were forced to live in communities where there were no opportunities. When we talk about that generational inequality, I mean, that’s it right there. The fact that you have trauma coming back from war, then we’re going to put some more trauma on you based on your color, and then we’re going to add additional trauma based on the neighborhood where you can live, in poor communities and places where opportunities are very, very few.
You even look at the Tuskegee Airmen and what they had to overcome during their service, and so many of them came back and many of them were not treated fairly. Many of them did not get the same benefits that White veterans did, so the promise of the GI Bill was really a false sale of goods. As a Black veteran, you will sacrifice as much as a White veteran in combat/your service, but when you get back, the benefits are not equal.
In a report the League did last year on racial disparities in housing in Detroit, we noted that home ownership is one of the greatest indicators of intergenerational wealth. How did the GI Bill affect that for African American veterans and their families?
The two main ways to gain wealth in America is through inheritance as well as home ownership and the value of a home passed down over generations. Many blacks didn’t have that inheritance opportunity, and so home ownership was the only element that they could participate in. So yes, home ownership was a big opportunity and it provided not only wealth, but it provided stability just to have a place where you can rest your head, go to work, be fed. That itself is worth so much more than actual dollars.
But because of the inequitable application of the GI Bill’s home ownership incentives, that peace of mind and having a place to call home wasn’t really available for Blacks. And in place of that security and financial stability, Black veterans were instead faced with a landlord not being a good landlord or a neighborhood that is not as good as other neighborhoods, where homes are actually being built and have high resale value, so that actually impacts the livelihood of that particular veteran, but also that veterans family for generations. That’s why I believe the Habitat model is such a beautiful model because it does provide those who have lower or fixed incomes, including many veterans, the opportunity to be a part of the American dream.
Could you talk a little bit more about Habitat for Humanity of Michigan and the particular work you are doing with veterans?
At Habitat, we have made it our mission to look at veterans as a unique individual that we would specifically focus on because of the many different hardships that many veterans experience. Some of those hardships are finances, some of those hardships are the trauma that veterans deal with, and so we recognize that there is a sense of positive patriotism as Americans but also from the corporate standpoint that these individuals who served should get a clearer focus. We saw that and we made it our mission to create a specific program that was dedicated to communicating and connecting with veterans. Part of the reason why we made a program exclusive to veterans is that they deal with issues that many non-veterans don’t deal with. In order to tap into that, we know that we needed to have a specific intentionality in reaching those specific veterans, so our goal is to communicate with the veteran population and let them know that we recognize their service, we recognize their sacrifices, and we want to extend an opportunity for them to be a part of the American dream by helping them build homes.
One of our sayings is that we truly want to put a definition behind “welcome home.” Many veterans come from the battlefield and they’re always greeted with “welcome home,” but we believe that we can truly impact and put more definition behind what it truly means to be welcomed home—and throughout the state, we’re seeing the impact. In the state of Michigan last year, we helped 118 veterans. We were able to build 10 veterans new homes, so that’s 10 new veterans who became homeowners. And we helped the remaining 108 veterans with home repairs. The average home repair costs $8,000 to $10,000, so that’s an important area of need, too. But that’s still a small percentage of the population.
In Michigan, there’s roughly 600,000+ veterans, so there’s so many more veterans that we can serve, and so many more veterans that deserve our commitment to serve them. That’s why we feel that this issue that you’re discussing and how we look at generational inequalities is important. If we put that on top of the fact that many veterans and veterans of color have PTSD, they are facing some significant challenges, and so we want to help bridge that gap and provide them an opportunity to spread their wealth through their families and their children just as White veterans that came back home and were able to use their GI Bill to build wealth through their home and eventually pass that down through their kids. So we’re just trying to make sure that that opportunity happens for all veterans, but it’s really important for veterans of color who are still experiencing the trauma that they received when they came back home and experienced in redlining, in segregation, in Jim Crow. Habitat is very focused on serving veterans and people of all races at a specific income bracket—and it just so happens that a strong component of them are veterans of color because of our history.
Michael Hyacinthe is originally from New York City and spent eight years in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, aka U.S. Navy Seabees. During his service, Michael was deployed to Iceland, Spain, Kuwait and Guam. He has a twin brother who is currently still serving in the 10th Mountain Division in the Army. After his military service, Michael moved to Grand Rapids and first became involved with Habitat for Humanity of Michigan by volunteering at the local habitat there. He was invited to help launch Kent County Habitat’s veterans program, and helped make Kent County one of the leaders in the program. Michael has been with Habitat for Humanity for eight years and currently serves as Regional Veteran Engagement Specialist for Habitat for Humanity Michigan, working at the state and national level to support Habitat affiliates and their work for veterans around the country.