Veterans Day, November 11, is a national holiday set aside to honor the men and women who have served in America’s armed forces and to acknowledge the debt we owe them. However, a new study shows that veterans are more likely to be homeless than those in the general population, and that, nationwide, veterans tend to have less access to health care and other supportive services than they need.
The study, which was done by the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, also found that nearly half a million veterans were homeless at some time during 2006, and as many as 66,000 of those vets were chronically without shelter. And while veterans comprise only 11 percent of the American population, they make up one of every four of the nation’s homeless.
Combat veterans are especially at risk, says Steven Berg, the Alliance’s vice president for policy and programs. “When people serve in battle, particularly, they come back and they’re injured,” Berg says. “They‘re injured with physical disabilities, they are injured with mental disabilities, and that all makes it hard for people to get jobs and pay rent and stay housed.”
Even if a veteran has enough money to pay for his or her rent, the difficulty of coping with a disability can render one’s housing situation unstable, whether one is living with family members, alone in an apartment, or in another scenario.
“And once they are homeless, that [in itself] can create a ‘downward spiral,’” Berg says.
For some homeless veterans, that downward spiral actually began during their military service.
“My problems [are] related to my experiences in Vietnam, and all the carnage and the mayhem and the suffering that I’ve seen,” says Arthur Williams, a homeless Vietnam-era veteran in New York.
He says that guilt over his wartime actions explains the severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction he has today. “And it has a profound effect on my head. I killed and maimed.”
When asked whether he connects those acts to his homelessness, Williams does not hesitate. “Yes. From my experience in the military, I became a beast, and I felt that it would be more rewarding for me to really live in the wild like an animal. Because I felt that’s what the war turned me into.”
In contrast to earlier American wars, where only men engaged in combat, many veterans returning from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. The new study found that female veterans are more likely to be homeless than non-veteran females, and that overall, female veterans are more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts.
A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service indicates that significant numbers of female American soldiers suffer sexual abuse during their military service. Such abuse can in turn contribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses that can lead to homelessness.
But for vets and non-vets alike, simple bad luck can also put you on the street. That’s what happened to Vietnam veteran George Hicks, who was homeless for a time after his discharge. Hicks insists that his wartime experience did not cause him to be homeless, but that being a vet helped him out once he was.
“The Veterans Hospital here in Manhattan helped out quite a bit. They have what they call a ‘Section Eight’ program, a veterans homeless program. I lucked out. If I didn’t know anything about that I would have been totally lost.”
But many veterans do not take advantage of the benefits that are available, either because they are not well informed of them when they are discharged, or because they don’t know how to navigate through the complex bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s a system that can be especially daunting for the mentally ill.
“So the very problem for which they need the benefits makes it harder or impossible to get the benefits,” says Steven Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
For those with severe disabilities, the Alliance recommends increased funding for what it calls “support supportive housing.”
“It’s affordable housing combined with mental health treatment, addiction treatment, other kinds of support services,” Berg explains, “so people can be stably housed and work on these other issues.” The goal is to make them productive members of society once again.
Berg adds that veterans without severe disabilities may need short-term housing subsidies and enhanced employment programs to avoid homelessness.
“We know these things work, but a lot of veterans need help and don’t get it,” he says.
Nearly 200,000 Americans are currently serving in the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This Veteran's Day, many Americans will be hoping not only for their safety on the battlefield, but for campassionate care and secure shelter for the veterans once they return.