We all see them all the time. They are practically on every street corner in America. They are homeless veterans. These homeless veterans have served in World II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of all homeless veterans served in Vietnam. Two-thirds have served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone. The VA states that the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with approximate 8% being female. The majority of these veterans are single, and live in urban areas. They suffer from mental illness, substance/alcohol abuse, or dual diagnosis, which is defined as a veteran struggling with both mental illness and a substance abuse problem simultaneously. Sadly, about 12% of the adult homeless population are veterans, and on any given night, approximately 49,933 veterans are homeless. These are very sobering statistics for our veterans.
Why are veterans homeless? Sadly, veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans, and about 1.5 million veterans are considered at-risk of homelessness. That means they are defined as being below the poverty level and paying more than 50% of household income on rent. It also includes households with a member who has a disability, a person living alone, and those who are not in the labor force. There certainly are a myriad of reasons as previously mentioned, the main ones being a drastic shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care. A large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of PTSD and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. A top priority for veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol. Additionally, military jobs and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, which places some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
Why doesn’t the VA take care of homeless veterans? To a certain extent, they do. Each year, VA’s specialized homelessness programs provide health care to almost 150,000 homeless veterans and other services to more than 112,000 veterans. Additionally, more than 40,000 homeless veterans receive disability benefits on a monthly basis.
Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing, nutritional meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, personal development and empowerment. They also need job assessment, training and placement assistance. Government money, while important, is limited, and available services are often at capacity. The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work the best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.
What can we as a community do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Determine the need in the community. Visit with homeless veteran service providers. A list of providers can be provided by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans database.
- Join an organization with other people who are also passionate about helping veterans and attacking this serious issue.
- Join a local homeless coalition.
- Donate to a local homeless veteran service provider
- Write to and contact your local officials. Ask them what is being done in the community for homeless veterans.
No veteran should be without a place to call home. Research shows that the greatest risk factors for homelessness are lack of support and social isolation after discharge. Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates, and, currently, 1 in 5 veterans is living alone. Social networks are extremely important for those veterans who have a crisis or need temporary help. Without this assistance, they are at high risk for homelessness. It is a travesty that so many of them are forced to live on the streets after they’ve so honorably served their country. They deserve the attention not only of the VA, but the entire country. I urge everyone to get involved in the campaign to rid veteran homelessness!