Now that our President is selecting a panel and launching a national investigation into shoddy conditions at our military and veteran hospitals based on a recent series of newspaper articles concerning Walter Reed, it might be an excellent time to also address the needs of thousands of America’s homeless veterans as well.
How many homeless veterans are there today?
Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by - no one keeps meticulous records on homeless veterans - the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in America. And it estimates that nearly 400,000 veterans experience homelessness over the course of a typical year.
This would mean that one out of every three homeless human beings sleeping in a frigid doorway, filthy alley, or flimsy cardboard box in America's cities, towns, and rural areas has valiantly put on a uniform and honorably served this country.
According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, our veterans account for at least 23 percent of all homeless people in America today.
And they estimate that each year, 2.3 million to 3.5 million people experience homelessness in America. So by utilizing their 23 percent figure for veterans, this would mean that there are actually between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans who are homeless at some time during the course of a year.
And that is a very sad and a very staggering number for those who served our nation so selflessly.
Here are some other homeless veteran statistics to consider:
33% of America’s male homeless population are veterans
47% of them are Vietnam Era Vets
17% are post Vietnam
15% are pre Vietnam
67% served three or more years in the Armed Forces
33% were stationed in war zones
89% received an Honorable Discharge
79% reside in central cities
16% reside in suburban areas
5% reside in rural areas
76% experience alcohol, drug, or mental health problems
46% are age 45 or older
Why are so many of our veterans homeless?
In addition to a complex set of factors affecting all homelessness in America -- extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care -- a large number of our displaced and at-risk veterans also live with the lingering and often devastating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, often compounded by a dire lack of government, family, and social support networks.
And, very sadly, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are already showing up in our nation's homeless shelters.
While the numbers are still relatively small, they're steadily rising, and these numbers are already raising alarms in veterans' organizations. The concern is that these returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - some who can't find jobs after leaving the military, others who are still struggling psychologically with the horrors of war - may be just the beginning of an influx of thousands of new homeless American veterans in need.
After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of our veterans came home to a very hostile national culture that offered little gratitude and inadequate services, particularly to deal with the severe mental stresses of war. And as a result, tens of thousands of our Vietnam veterans still struggle with homelessness and drug addiction today.
Our veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are coming home to a very different America today. While the Iraq war remains very controversial, there is almost unanimous support for our soldiers overseas. And in the years since Vietnam, more than 250 nonprofit veterans' service organizations have sprouted up, many of them created by former Vietnam veterans themselves, who had vowed that this neglect for those who served would never happen again.
But today, these nonprofit veterans' service providers are extremely concerned by the ever increasing numbers of new veterans already ending up on our streets and in our shelters.
Part of the reason for these new veterans' struggles today is that housing costs have skyrocketed while real wages have remained relatively stable, often putting rental prices out of reach for many of our vets. And for many of them, there is still a huge gap of months, sometimes even years, between military benefits ending, and veterans benefits finally beginning.
And today, both the Department of Veterans Affairs and these private nonprofit veterans service organizations are already severely stretched, still providing services for so many veterans of our previous wars. For instance, while an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless at some time during 2004, the VA had the necessary resources to help only about 100,000 of them.
"You can have all of the yellow ribbons on cars that say 'Support Our Troops' that you want, but it's when they take off the uniform and transition back to civilian life that they need support the most," says Linda Boone, executive director of The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
After the Vietnam conflict, it was 9 to 12 years before these veterans began showing up at America’s homeless shelters in large numbers. This was due in large part because the severe trauma they experienced during combat often took time to surface. Doctors refer to this lingering ailment today as PTSD.
A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that 15 to 17 percent of Iraq vets already meet "the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD." Of those, only 23 to 40 percent are currently seeking help - in part because so many fear the stigma of also being labeled with a mental disorder.
Yet many veterans' service providers say these veterans will be forced to seek help some day soon, and we won’t be equipped to assist them.
"This kind of inner city urban guerrilla warfare that these veterans are facing today probably accelerates mental-health problems," says Yogin Ricardo Singh, director of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. "And then there's the soldier's mentality: Asking for help right now is like saying, 'I've failed a mission.' It's very hard for them to do."
Beyond PTSD and high housing costs, many veterans today also face a severe income void, as they desperately search for new jobs or sit waiting for their veterans benefits to finally kick in.
Doesn’t the Department of Veterans Affairs take care of our homeless veterans?
To a certain degree, they do. According to the VA, in the years since it began responding to the special needs of our homeless veterans, its homeless treatment and assistance network has developed into the nation’s largest provider of homeless services, serving more than 100,000 veterans annually.
But using their own figure of an estimated 400,000 veterans homeless at some time during the year, this would mean that the VA still reaches only about 25 percent of those in need, leaving at least 300,000 veterans who must seek assistance elsewhere, if they can find it.
What services do our homeless veterans need the most?
These vets need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing and nutritional meals; essential physical health care; substance abuse care and mental health counseling; and personal development and empowerment. These veterans also need job training, and job placement assistance.
What seems to work best for these homeless vets?
According to the experts, the most effective programs for our homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, ‘veterans helping veterans’ groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing for them with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments, with fellow veterans, who are finally succeeding at bettering themselves, and finally finding new jobs.
But government money for these types of veteran programs has always been very limited, as it is today, and it serves roughly only one in 10 of these veterans in need.
I think now would be an excellent time for all of us, including our government officials, to finally reach out to help provide the support, the resources, and the opportunities to our homeless veterans that most of us Americans take for granted each and every day: adequate housing, gainful employment, and adequate health care.
Today, there are about 250 community-based veteran organizations across the country that have demonstrated some success in reaching out to our ever increasing homeless veteran population. But these groups will only be completely successful when they are finally able to work in full collaboration with federal, state, and local government agencies, other homeless providers, and national veterans’ service organizations.
What can all of us do?
Determining the needs and numbers of homeless veterans in our own communities.
Visiting with homeless veteran providers there, to determine what kinds of help they need.
Sending these private nonprofit providers financial donations.
Involving others in the plight of America's homeless veterans.
Participating in local homeless coalitions in our own communities.
And most importantly, immediately contacting our elected officials and legislators, to demand that this woefully neglected aspect of veteran care is now also finally addressed, corrected, and adequately funded, as well.