Iraq veterans facing homelessness

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Iraq veterans facing homelessness

As a member of the National Guard, Nadine Beckford patrolled New York train stations after Sept. 11 with a 9mm pistol, then served a treacherous year in Iraq.

Now, six months after returning, Beckford lives in a homeless shelter.

“I’m just an ordinary person who served. I’m not embarrassed about my homelessness, because the circumstances that created it were not my fault,” said Beckford, 30, who was a military-supply specialist at a base in Iraq that was a sitting duck for around-the-clock attacks, “where hell was your home.”

Thousands of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are facing a new nightmare — the risk of homelessness. The government estimates that several hundred vets who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless on any given night around the country, although the exact number is unknown…

     The reasons that contribute to this new wave of homelessness are many: Some are unable to cope with life after daily encounters with insurgent attacks and roadside bombs; some can’t navigate the government red tape; others simply don’t have enough money to afford a house or apartment.

They are living on the edge in towns and cities big and small from Washington state to Florida. But the hardest hit are in New York City, because housing costs here “can be very tough,” said Peter Dougherty, head of the Homeless Veterans Program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Former Army Pfc. Herold Noel had nowhere to call home after returning from Iraq last year. He slept in his Jeep, parked anywhere in New York “where I wouldn’t get a ticket.”

“Then the nightmares would start,” said the 26-year-old, who drove a military fuel truck in Iraq — one of the war’s most dangerous jobs.

At one point, he saw a friend’s leg get blown off. “I saw a baby decapitated when it was run over by a truck. I relived that every night,” said Noel, who walks with shrapnel in his knee and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome.

To help people like Noel, the VA gives grants to nonprofit, private housing organizations that offer about 8,000 free beds nationwide. The space isn’t always enough to accommodate everyone in desperate need of shelter among the more than 500,000 vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been discharged from the military so far.

When Noel got back, the shattered soldier couldn’t immediately find a job to support his wife and children, and all the housing programs for vets he knew of “were overbooked,” he said.

The family ended up in a Bronx shelter “with people who were just out of prison, and with roaches,” he said. “I’m a young black man from the ghetto, but this was culture shock. This is not what I fought for, what I almost died for. This is not what I was supposed to come home to.”

Noel now attends a Brooklyn program to get a job in studio sound production. He also is the protagonist of the documentary film “When I Came Home,” which was named best New York-made documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

Just after the news reports about his plight came out, he got a call from the VA granting him the 100 percent disability compensation he sought — after being turned down.

He’s not blaming the military, which “helped make my dreams come true. I had a house, a car — they gave me everything they promised me,” he said.

“It’s up to the government and the people we’re defending to take care of their soldiers.”

Before she went to war, Beckford put all her belongings in storage. And while in Iraq, she sent most of her National Guard earnings of about $25,000 a year into her New York bank account. When she returned, the Brooklyn storage locker had been emptied, as was her bank account. She believes her boyfriend took everything and disappeared; she reported the thefts to police, but “he just vanished.”

Without support from family — her parents are barely making ends meet in their native Jamaica — Beckford lives in a Brooklyn shelter where she shares a room with eight other women.

Beckford is no longer angry — just anxious to get back on her feet as she attends a job-training program.

Long before the current war, the Homeless Veterans Program had guided men and women back into daily life after service in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. But Dougherty makes no secret of a truth few Americans know: About one-fourth of all homeless adults in America have served in the military — most of them minority veterans.

There are now about 200,000 homeless vets in the United States, according to government figures.

“In recent years, we’ve tried to reach out sooner to new veterans who are having problems with post-traumatic stress, depression or substance abuse, after seeing combat,” said Dougherty. “These are the veterans who most often end up homeless.”

Across the country, 350 nonprofit service organizations are working with Veterans Affairs to provide a network of kindness that breaks the veterans’ fall.

But they still land on a hard bottom line: Almost half of America’s 2.7 million disabled veterans receive $337 or less a month in benefits, according to the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration.

Fewer than one-tenth of them are rated 100 percent disabled, meaning they get $2,393 a month, tax free.

“And only those who receive that 100 percent benefit rating can survive in New York,” said J.B. White Jr., a 36-year-old former Marine who served with a National Guard unit in Iraq. His entire colon was removed after he was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, which civilian medical experts believe started in Iraq under the stress of war.

White is in the midst of an uphill battle to get benefits from the government. He also helps others, as head of the Hope for New Veterans program for Common Ground, a Manhattan-based social service agency that finds non-government housing for vets.

For those struggling to keep a roof over their head, filing for benefits can be a bureaucratic Catch-22 that ratchets up the stress. But it’s their survival ticket, if their claim is not turned down.

To an outsider, the VA benefit formulas can seem like a riddle.

If, for instance, a vet is diagnosed as 70 percent physically disabled and 30 percent disabled as a result of post-traumatic stress, the total disability does not necessarily add up to 100 percent; it could amount to 80 percent. And that means a monthly check of $1,277; $1,500 for a family of four — a paltry amount in places like New York where cramped studio apartments routinely exceed $1,000 a month.

Even with a college degree in African studies and English, Beckford said, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to move out of the shelter.”

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