Homeless Veterans: An Ongoing National and Local Disgrace
by Stu Steinberg
According to many contemporaneous media sources, there are almost 300,000 homeless veterans in the United States who are living on the streets or in shelters. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that more than 299,000 veterans are homeless on any given night; more than 500,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 24.9 million veterans in America. If accurate, this seems to imply that five of every 249 veterans will experience homelessness in the next year. The Bureau also estimated that there were 8.2 million Vietnam and Vietnam Era veterans, making them the largest group of veterans from any period of service.
In February 2005, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that, according to the VA, There are 93,000 homeless Vietnam veterans. In the same article, the Sun-Times noted that, Already about 100 soldiers from Iraq have turned up at homeless shelters around the country. In December 2005, a veterans’ self-help agency in Brooklyn noted that they had seen approximately 60 [veterans from the War on Terror] with serious housing needs, at least six of whom spent time in homeless shelters. One of the program’s directors stated that,
With Vietnam, you did not see homeless veterans during the conflictWhat’s alarming [now] is the conflict is still in progress and you’re already seeing reported cases of homelessness. This is something new.
The VA reports that almost half of all homeless veterans are Vietnam and Vietnam Era veterans. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans notes that,
Conservatively, one of every three homeless adult males sleeping in a doorway, alley, boxcar, barn or other location not fit for human habitation in our urban, suburban and rural communities, has served our nation in the Armed Forces.
Recently, media sources have reported that veterans from the Persian Gulf War, the Bosnian Crisis, and now the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, are joining the ranks of the homeless. According to a December 7, 2004, UPI story, U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq are beginning to show up at homeless shelters around the country, and advocates fear they are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless vets not seen since the Vietnam era. The UPI story went on to note that,
Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that as ofJuly , nearly 28,000 veterans from Iraq sought healthcare from the VA. One out of every five was diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the VA. An Army study in the New England Journal of Medicine in July  showed that 17 percent of service members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD.
The New England Journal of Medicine article reported that,
The percentage of study subjects whose responses met the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD was15.6 to 17.1 percent[for soldiers returning from Iraq and]11.2 percent[for soldiers returning from Afghanistan]…; the largest difference was in the rate of PTSD. Of those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder, only 23 to 40 percent sought mental health care. Those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder were twice as likely as those whose responses were negative to report concern about possible stigmatization and other barriers to seeking mental health care.
A recent survey conducted by the Army Surgeon General reported that as many as 30% of the soldiers returning from Iraq were reporting mental health problems. Thus, it might be suggested from this recent research, that we are likely to see a large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with mental health problems showing up in homeless shelters. As of August 2005, more than 1,000,000 soldiers had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if you assume that some of that number includes soldiers on second, or even third, tours, you can easily see that if the Army is correct, there will be tens-of-thousands of veterans returning with mental health problems. Every survey that has been done shows that many veterans who are homeless share two common factors: mental health problems and substance abuse. Given this, there is good reason to believe that a relatively large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are going to end up homeless.
According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor,
Part of the reason for these new veterans’ struggles is that housing costs have skyrocketed at the same time real wages have remained relatively stable, often putting rental prices out of reach. And for many, there is a gap of months, sometimes years, between when military benefits end and veterans benefits beginBeyond PTSD and high housing costs, many veterans also face an income void, as they search for new jobs or wait for their veterans benefits to kick in.
In a December 11, 2002, news release, the VA reported that they had awarded $13 million to 53 groups for additional beds for homeless veterans. However, sadly, the release also noted that this would only increase homeless veterans’ shelter beds funded by the VA from 3,600, to just 4,978. More recently, the VA reported that it now funds approximately 10,000 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds for homeless veterans. Although some might say that the increase of VA-funded beds for homeless veterans is significant, many of us believe that it is simply immoral that there are still some 290,000, or more, other homeless veterans who are forced to rely upon non-veteran shelters or transitional housing where they are treated the same as any other citizen. Thus, they are not screened for mental health problems and none of the non-veteran programs I have talked with offer veterans assistance in securing benefits from the VA.
None of the surveys regarding the numbers of homeless veterans takes into consideration the large group of these men and women who do not go to shelters, but who live in the woods or in other outdoor locations not fit for human habitation. Current researchers only go to the relatively safe haven of urban shelters and rely upon the information provided by veterans who choose to go there. Thus, research claims that surveys of homeless veterans show there is no connection between homelessness, combat and PTSD are fatally flawed since none of these Harvard and Yale yuppies are going out into the bush and surveying the large numbers of veterans who choose to live there. It’s like the way unemployed numbers are determinedif you stop looking for work and aren’t entitled to unemployment, you simply do not exist.
I assist veterans with claims for VA benefits and I can tell you from recent experience that in Central Oregon there are Vietnam veterans in the woods, they are all combat or combat support vets and they all suffer from some degree of PTSD or other mental illness. Many of them have substance abuse problems. And in case you’re wondering, the VA never goes looking for homeless veterans outside of urban shelter settings and, in most cases, looks no further than their own medical or outreach centers when a homeless vet shows up looking for medical or mental health services. The closest the VA ever comes to finding veterans who live in the woods is when the veteran shows up at a VA stand down, usually held in a parking lot in an urban setting.
The VA now claims to be supporting approximately 300 homeless veterans’ programs and that they serve around 100,000 homeless veterans each year. Their budget for helping homeless veterans is close to $100,000,000 a year. However, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that with nearly 500,000 veteranshomeless at some point in any given yearthe VA is only serving 20% of them. In Central and Eastern Oregon, where I live, there are no VA funded homeless veterans programs or outreach centers east of the Cascade Mountains, despite the fact that we have one of the highest per-capita number of veterans in the country.
According to the VA,
Nearly one-third of Oregon’s homeless people are veterans, according to the State of Oregon. The Portland [VA] medical center, in a unique sharing agreement with the City of Vancouver, leases land on its Vancouver campus for a 124-bed apartment complex for homeless veterans. Oregon is part of a VA network that includes Alaska, Idaho and Washington. This network reported the highest percentage of homeless veterans hospitalized for mental health reasons this past year (47.5 percent), which is 20 percentage points higher than the VA’s national average (27.9 percent). The network ranked fifth in the nation for the percentage of homeless veterans with acute psychiatric disorders (27.9 percent) and fourth in the nation for admissions of homeless veterans with substance abuse problems (60 percent, which is nearly double the national average of 35.3 percent).
In Oregon, we face the same problems regarding homeless veterans as the rest of the country, and this situation is even worse in the Central and Eastern Oregon counties, which cover some 66,180 square miles of rural, high desert country.
According to the Urban Institute, 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in a given year. This means that approximately 1.2% of the total U.S. population will be homeless at some time each year. By extrapolation from the census numbers, we can estimate that there will be approximately 5,745 homeless people in Central and Eastern Oregon in a given year and that approximately 1,915 of them will be veterans. Given the long distances between most of the recognized population centers in Central and Eastern Oregon, the problem is greatly exacerbated for homeless veterans when there are scarce emergency shelter and transitional housing beds for all homeless people, let alone beds specifically set aside for homeless veterans. In this regard, the general problem of scarce homeless beds in Central and Eastern Oregon makes the specific problem of providing services to homeless veterans an extremely high priority, local social issue.
To be blunt, we owe these men and women–who have helped defend this country time and again–warm and safe shelter, nourishing food, medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, education and employment training. As previously noted, the VA is only able to provide services for about 20% of the homeless veteran population each year and, so, local communities must pick up the slack to see that the other 80% are properly cared for. In fact, the VA numbers are completely disingenuous because if a homeless vet shows up at a VA medical center for outpatient care, they count that service the same as providing a homeless vet with shelter.
Therefore, assuming that the VA provides necessary care and shelter for some 382 homeless veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon in a given year, it is a moral imperative that local communities find the resources to care for the other 1,533 homeless veterans that the VA will not reach in that same year. Finally, the numbers of veterans needing emergency assistance increase dramatically when you include at-risk veterans and veterans living in poverty. These figures are, no doubt, similar in all communities and, thus, all communities have the same obligation to honor and care for all of their veterans, not just the ones they see in the Veterans Day parade. And here’s the sickest part. I see all of these people with Support Our Troops stickers and magnets on their cars. It is quite clear that this support ends when the troops become veterans. The vast majority of the American public, Democrats and Republicans alike, simply ignore the homeless veterans issue, much as they ignore every other issue that makes them uncomfortable in their whitebread existence.
Although it may seem to some like a simplistic and arrogant claim, the truth is that the people of the United States owe their very freedom to the men and women who have defended them since the American Revolution. This past summer, a number of the members of High Desert Chapter 820, Vietnam Veterans of America, participated in a community service project during the weekly Munch n’ Music festivities at Drake Park in Bend, Oregon. During one such event, a young mother and her son came to the VVA table and the mother said to her son, These men fought for their country so that you could be free. You can try to lessen the statement made by this young woman, but the reality is that it was a true statement. As one Vietnam veteran recently put it, When you come home from war, from serving when your country asked you to, you shouldn’t end up sleeping under a bridge.
Stu Steinberg is a Vietnam veteran who is Vice President of Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, Inc., a nonprofit, charitable organization providing services to homeless and poor veterans. He is an accredited service officer for Vietnam Veterans of America who assists veterans with claims before the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
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