Congressman Ted Lieu — A veteran supporting veterans plus cybersecurity, environment, mental health, reliable media, anti-Asian crime and more.
In one of the most difficult times in modern history, the Covid-19 pandemic caused great inequities and great need to bubble up into the public view. These disparities are not new; they just became more pronounced in a country on pause.
Americans count on their elected officials to take these issues from their communities to the people’s house, the US House of Representatives. Forward thinking representatives, like Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), are responding to this time, striving to support the needs of his constituents, as well as the American people.
Rep. Lieu just announced a bill to improve U.S. government vendor cybersecurity by requiring government contractors to maintain VDPs. Lieu also introduced the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. If passed, this bill that would benefit media who were impacted by downsizing, closings and disappearing funding during the Covid-19 pandemic. Reminiscent of FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project from the 1935 New Deal, this program could give a future voice to the present times by documenting varied experiences and stories of struggle and survival, while supporting declining local media outlets and vital publications.
Recently, ABILITY Magazine pulled Rep. Lieu away from a busy day to discuss updates on his work with Veterans Affairs and expand on his insights about the relationship between homelessness and mental health. Lieu also talks about Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes and what we all can do beyond enacting legislation.
Chet Cooper: I want to go back a little bit with your legislation and work you did with veterans and homeless. There’s a personal connection with you being a veteran. Can you talk about that?
Congressman Ted Lieu: Thank you, Chet, for your question. I previously served on active duty in the United States Air Force. I’m still in the reserves. My view is that no one who served our nation in our armed forces should ever be homeless. It’s always been a priority of mine to reduce veterans’ homelessness. I happen to have the West Los Angeles VA in my district, which is one of the nation’s largest hospitals. And, for many decades, it was somewhat dysfunctional and it had a messed-up campus. When I came in, one of the first bills that I got signed into law was during the Obama administration, where we put in a whole new master plan that will, at its full build-out, have approximately 1,500 or more units to house homeless veterans. It will deliver better services to veterans as well.
Cooper: Across from UCLA?
Cooper: Yes, that’s huge. And they have a small golf course in the back?
Cooper: In the work that you’ve done around veterans, can you talk about the connection with mental health?
Lieu: Yes. As you know, mental health is a very big issue among the veteran community–both because of the trauma that some have experienced serving in combat or in other sorts of situations–from mental trauma, from seeing, witnessing, taking part in certain actions, as well as physical trauma. Some people have simply suffered brain injuries as a result and then had mental health issues from those injuries. So, it’s a combination of a number of different situations that make mental health a very big priority not just for me, but also for the Veterans Administration.
There’s also a lot of research going on as well as in California, in my district, all centered around PTSD and mental health and other aspects of how we can help veterans who do have mental health issues. We continue to lack funding–both at the state and national level–for mental health just in general. And I’m always very supportive of additional funding for the mental health community.
Cooper: There’s of course an overlap, as you just mentioned, with trauma and PTSD, and having other mental health issues being part of the reason they’re homeless. How can we—how can the government, I guess–support that extra need for mental health safety nets, wellness programs, helping people have a decent quality of life?
Lieu: The homelessness issue has been a problem for a number of states, including California. There was a surge in homelessness the last few years. If you look at the numbers of veterans (who are) homeless, however, you have not seen that surge. In fact, I think the numbers of veterans homeless in southern California stayed stable or maybe declined a little bit. That’s because the federal government has a pretty good program called the HUD VASH [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing] voucher. It has two components. The HUD part provides housing, and then the VASH part provides services, and that’s very important. For some folks in the homeless community, they need services, including mental health services, to be able to put them back on their feet and get them transitioned back into society.
A lot of problems that we see when local authorities try to engage with homeless people who aren’t veterans are that they don’t provide enough services. They just provide them housing and, eventually, those folks go back on the streets again. I think it’s very important to provide housing as well as services, including mental health services.
At the federal level, we do this with veterans. However, we don’t engage much at the federal level with the homeless population who are not veterans. My view is, just because this has always been the way it is doesn’t mean it should be the way it is. So, Senator Feinstein and I have introduced legislation that will provide about $4B of funding over five years to local jurisdictions to provide mental health and other services to folks who are homeless who are not veterans.
Cooper: Our lead medical editor is a psychiatrist. She once worked with a program, I think, very close to your district. I know it reached beyond Long Beach. She would meet the patients who were homeless–sometimes in an alley–any place they would feel comfortable. The care came to them. It was an award-winning program, but it never got to a national level. So maybe part of that funding that you’re talking about can look at those models that bring the support to the people in need. Some of those people can’t manage setting up appointments, let alone get to a clinic.
Lieu: That’s right.
Cooper: I just thought I’d share that. Moving to something else close to your background. I know you have a degree in computer science. Due to the pandemic more people are aware of the need for broadband for everyone. Can you talk about where you are with that? Any ideas to expand that in a quick way?
Lieu: By the way, I’m a recovering computer science major.
Lieu: So, we saw during this pandemic the importance of fast, reliable Internet service–especially with all the children who had to learn remotely, with businesses who had to have meetings conducted remotely. It exacerbated existing disparities in our country, where some people have access to broadband, and some do not. So, I’m a supporter of the American Jobs Plan, which has a broadband component to it. One hundred billion dollars with be allocated to provide broadband everywhere, including in rural areas as well as inner cities that don’t have it and everywhere in between.
My wife, my better half, happens to be president of the Torrance school board, and seeing first-hand the challenges of making sure every student has access not only to Internet, but also fast, reliable Internet, was very important. As you can imagine, there are some households where they don’t have Internet or the Internet they have is not fast or not reliable. And they may have siblings and parents who all have to use Internet at the same time. It makes it very difficult for a child to learn if their Internet goes in and out or if things freeze, and they can’t listen to what’s happening during their classes. We have to fix this problem. We’re in the twenty-first century now. There’s no reason to have so many people who don’t have access to broadband. With the American Jobs Plan, we’ll be able to fix that.
Cooper: I know we’re talking about just the connectivity component, but once you get to the front-face and even on the back end, the admin side of websites, is there anything you’re seeing movement about having some federal regulations about accessibility?
Lieu: A number of telecom companies do have programs that will provide reduced rates for lower-income individuals to access the Internet.
Cooper: I so just threw that word out there, and I forgot—my world is disability-centered, so when I used the word “accessibility,” sorry about that, I meant accessibility in the sense of making sure the websites are built in such a way that if you’re blind or if you’re deaf, that everything’s close-captioned, that kind of accessibility.
Lieu: Ah! Sorry—
Cooper: No, my bad.
Lieu: We do see private companies start doing this. For example, Zoom does have a function where they will transcribe what you’re saying in real-time.
Cooper: Just to let you know, we and many others lobbied Zoom for a long time—
Lieu: How interesting!
Cooper: When it first came out it was a paid feature through a third party, we kept pushing and then they finally backed off and realized that they were in a losing battle.
Lieu: Thank you for doing that! That’s terrific! If it’s the case that these private sector companies are not doing that or too slow to do it, I’m happy to look at regulations or laws that would make the Internet more accessible for everyone.
One of my best friends from college happens to be deaf, and we did a Zoom call. It was essential that we had the transcription feature on Zoom to be able to do that, so thanks for fighting for it.
Cooper: Google’s had it for a while on their platform–Google Meet. They have it and Microsoft has it. Zoom is the last to bring it in. But I’m glad you used it, that’s great!
Lieu: The name is familiar.
Cooper: He is considered the father, the inventor, of the Internet.
Lieu: Ah, OK, very cool.
Cooper: I know he attended Stanford, your alma mater. He gives Al Gore credit for bringing it up in the Senate—moving ARPANET which was not open to the private sector or commercialization and expand it to the world-wide network, known as the Internet.
Could you talk to what’s happening today with Asian American hate crime?
Lieu: We know that since the pandemic started there has been a surge in hate crimes and hate incidents against the Asian and Pacific Islander community. According to one report, last year hate crimes increased nearly 150% in major cities across America. Even though overall hate crimes declined, hate crimes increased against the AAPI community. A second report showed that one in four Asian American students reported being the victims of racial bullying. And a third report from Pew Research shows that one in three Asian Americans now fear being the victims of a hate incident or a hate crime. For people in the Asian American community, this is not particularly surprising. When Americans experience fears, sometimes minority communities get scapegoated.
In the 1850s, we had the whole “Yellow Peril” hysteria, which was followed by the Chinese Massacre, which was the mass lynching of Chinese immigrants, that was then followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In World War II, over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned. In the 1980s, when America feared the economic rise of Japan, we saw again additional hate crimes, including the murder of Vincent Chen. And then with this pandemic, we’re seeing yet another surge.
What gives you hope is that you have the highest levels of our government paying attention to this. You have President Biden, who issued an executive order to combat hate crimes and hate incidents against the Asian American community. You had the President and Vice President visiting with Asian leaders in Georgia. And then in Congress, we have legislation that addresses the issue of hate crimes and hate incidents. We’ve also had a number of rallies across America in support of the Asian community. These rallies weren’t massive, but they weren’t small, either. They were happening in both small towns and large cities across the company. I think if all of this had happened during World War II, I’m not sure Japanese Americans would have been interned. We’re in a different political situation, and I think you’re seeing now the political awakening of the Asian American community.
Cooper: I’ll see if Melissa has anything she might want to add at this point, having some connections with some of what I just mentioned. Melissa?
Melissa Ancheta: Yes. Hello, Congressman. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve done for the AAPI community. I’m Filipino, so seeing how much work you’ve done, especially to speak out against racism and anti-Asian violence, I feel like it’s very inspiring. I wanted to ask about how LAUNCH and how they’re helping the AAPI community.
Lieu: Sure. LAUNCH is a great organization. They did the first baseline survey of attitudes of Americans towards the Asian American community. This is something that the Anti-Defamation League has done with the Jewish American community. This is a survey that will be done once a year, so you can track the changes in how people view the AAPI community. Their first survey recently came out earlier this month. It had some very interesting findings, including that a very high percentage of Asian Americans have experienced discrimination and believe they are discriminated against. I think in terms of other organizations, you’ve got Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which goes into create and does advocacy as well on behalf of civil rights issues. You have the Japanese American Citizens League, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the National Asian Pacific Bar Association. There are a number of organizations out there. I know the organization Stop AAPI Hate has been tracking hate crimes since last year. If someone just did an Internet search, you’ll see a lot of very good Asian American organizations to support.
I do also want to highlight that I think Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” I want folks to understand their power to shape public sentiment. Social media is free. If you have an interesting post or interesting video, it could potentially affect someone in Florida or South Carolina or Oregon or Nevada. Think about writing letters to the editor. It’s true that many people do write letters to the editor, and it’s also true that they often come from the same people. When you start writing, eventually you’ll get published. And you can start changing hearts and minds. And think about going to rallies or marches or volunteer on campaigns, whether it’s for an issue or a candidate or a movement. Everyone can help affect public sentiment.
Ancheta: Great. Are there any efforts you know of being taken to try to highlight diversity—especially due to these experiences during the pandemic and how they differ depending on where they’re from?
Lieu: That’s a great point. I’m a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American caucus, and one thing we’ve been pushing for years is data disaggregation. The AAPI community is a very diverse community composed of multiple ethnicities. When you look at the data in a disaggregated manner–We know, for example, that during this pandemic, Pacific Islanders died at far higher rates from COVID than Caucasians did. You wouldn’t know that if you didn’t disaggregate the data. It’s very important to disaggregate data and find existing disparities and try to mitigate the disparities.
At the same time, when it comes to issues like hate, people don’t distinguish. You’ve seen not just Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans get assaulted and brutalized, but you also have Filipino Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders who are assaulted and brutalized because of people’s fears of this virus and other hatred towards the AAPI community.
Ancheta: In the future, is it an issue of lack of funding? Is there anything that in the future people can try to resolve this lack of data or the fact that the data isn’t often disaggregated, like you said?
Lieu: I think it’s both. It’s partly a lack of funding because it does cost more resources to disaggregate data. It’s also awareness. For decades, many states as well as the federal government have just been doing the same kind of data collection they’ve always been doing, and they weren’t very aware of the multiple ethnicities within the AAPI community. A lot of it is just simply raising awareness. When I was in the California state legislature, I authored legislation to disaggregate data and provide different categories to check in the check boxes when the state was collecting data. My bill did not pass. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it, partly for budget reasons. But then later on, another legislator, Mike Eng, took my bill and reintroduced it. And he got it passed. Sometimes you just have to keep trying.
And then with the U.S. census, for example, it’s sort of arbitrary the check boxes they have when they collect data. My view is, either you don’t disaggregate the data and simply ask the question if someone is Asian or, if you’re going to disaggregate it and have some ethnicities, it doesn’t make any sense to not have all the ethnicities. So, my view is we should greatly expand the number of check boxes on the U.S. census. I’ve written letters to the census urging them to do it. I couldn’t get it in this time–It was under the Trump administration when all of this was done.–But hopefully, in the next census, we’re able to expand the number of categories that they have check boxes for.