Need Outstrips Supply of Beds for Homeless Veterans

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Why there are so many homeless veteransNo one knows for sure how many homeless there are – estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to millions.
by Thomas Watkins

SAN DIEGO–Now that warmer weather is arriving, the giant tent that was a winter home for 150 veterans is being packed away.

"For most of us, it's back on the streets," says Marvin Britton, a former military policeman who's been crisscrossing the country since leaving the Army in 1971 following three combat tours in Vietnam.

The battered tent, pitched on a Navy parking lot, is reflective of a problem that almost certainly will worsen as more troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and leave active duty – there just aren't enough beds for vets who end up homeless…

     

No one knows for sure how many homeless there are – estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to millions.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are about 195,000 homeless veterans on any given night. Until 1987, there were no VA-funded programs catering to homeless vets, but now there are more than 200, Dougherty said. The VA employs about 230 outreach workers who specifically look out for homeless veterans and has increased the number of health clinics.

Former Marine Cordney Gordon was one of the recent vets who found himself without a place to live. After one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, he left the military last year and was on the streets months later.

Anger problems, stress and depression plagued him. After his marriage broke down, Gordon, 30, had nowhere to live, became suicidal and ended up in a VA hospital.

"I really thought my life was over with," he said.

Escondido-based nonprofit Interfaith Community Services found him at the VA hospital and he now lives in one of the group's VA-funded apartments with three older veterans.

Transitional beds like Gordon's generally are provided by nonprofit or community groups like Interfaith. They receive about $30 a day per veteran from the VA, but looking after each veteran can cost them more than $70, said Reinis. The rest is raised through private grants, individual donations, other governmental sources and fundraising events.

Back to the bush

About three-quarters of the veterans who spent the winter in the San Diego tent – many of them Vietnam-era servicemen who, like Britton, are battling substance addiction and psychiatric problems – will again "go bush" for the summer, often living under bridges. Most of the rest will qualify for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that provide shelter.

The tent is run by the nonprofit Veterans Village of San Diego as an overflow for its main facility, an old motel with 87 beds that is being transformed into a compound with 224 beds.

"You never leave anyone in the field," said Veterans Village Al Pavich, a former Navy officer. "You take care of your own."


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