Friday, April 25, 2014

We salute you; Homelessness among U.S. veterans and how we can help.

On any given night, 57,849 U.S. veterans are homeless, forced to live on the streets – huddled up in alleys, under bridges, on park benches, or, if their lucky, on heating grates or in shelters.  Additionally, up to 140,000 will spend at least one night without shelter each year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.)  In a country where our politicians and citizens rarely can form a consensus on any issue, we’re all in agreement; for the brave men and women who served our country and risked their lives to protect our freedom, even one person on the street is one too many.

The Obama administration has pledged to eradicate homelessness among U.S veterans by 2015, an ambitious goal that’s seen progress but also run into major challenges that speak to the core issues of homelessness.   There has been a 24% reduction in homelessness among veterans since that decree – the default statistic up until recently was that 1 in 4 homeless were military veterans, a stat that’s now closer to 1 in 8, so we’ve certainly seen progress.  But by all standards of conscience, it’s not enough. 

Here are some disturbing facts about U.S. veterans living on the streets:

It’s estimated that at least 12% of homeless adults are veterans, yet they comprise only 9.3% of all adult Americans.  20% of homeless males are veterans, or 1 in 5.

According to one community action program, almost 30% of homeless veterans served post 9/11, a subset of new and younger homeless that’s growing at an alarming rate. 

Since 2001, there was a 25% increase in the number of disabled veterans

Only 10% of veterans living on the streets had less –than-honorable discharges, a small number.

So who is our typical homeless veteran?  92% are male and only 8% female and the vast majority are unmarried and live in urban areas.  40% of homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, though those
populations account for only 10.4% and 3.4% of the veteran population, respectively.  Homeless veterans are younger than the total veteran population, with approximately 9% between ages 18 and 30, and 41% between 31 and 50, where only 5% of all veterans are between 18 and 30 and less than 23% between 31 and 50.  They served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and anti-drug campaigns in Central and South America.  However, nearly half of homeless veterans served in the Vietnam era.  Two-thirds served in the military for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in war zones. 

These numbers tell us who they are, but not why they are on the streets.  More telling are these statistics, which could perhaps be on the low side due to the difficulty of accurate reporting:

50% of homeless veterans suffer from serious mental illness.

51% of them are medically or psychologically disabled.

70% have substance abuse problems, whether it's alcohol or illegal drugs.  The prevalence of addiction is due to the normal factors of poverty but also many veterans turn to alcohol and drugs to ease the suffering of injuries, cope with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and mental illness, and deal with the transition back to civilian life.   

The correlation between homelessness and veterans who suffer from the 3-headed Hydra of substance abuse, disability, and mental illness, is a near 1:1 ratio. 

Even greater is the looming risk of other veterans slipping into homelessness.  About 1.4 million veterans are currently considered at risk due to poverty, lack of support networks, drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, and current substandard housing.  Among all veterans, 12.5% of the total population ages 18 to 34 live under the poverty line, which has doubled since 10 years previously. 

The potential societal cost is significant – homeless vets, like the greater homeless population – end up burdening our medical system, public servants like police, fire, and EMT workers, and ending up incarcerated.  An estimated 140,000 vets are currently being held in state or federal prisons.  Statistically, they use drugs less, are better educated, and shorter criminal histories than non-military servicemen, yet, inexplicably serve longer average sentences than non-veterans.  But when it comes to homeless veterans, it’s our moral compass that points us to outrage, not pragmatism

As Vince Kane, head of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, put it, “Nobody who wore the uniform should be on our streets.” 

The good news is that we know what helps veterans get off the streets and enjoy a normalized and quality civilian life.  The Veterans Administration, the VA, our government’s national umbrella over all things veteran based, spearheads the effort to help our vets, but a large, federal body is not enough.  What seems to work best is adding in smaller, community-based organizations that work on a local level, individual threads that when woven together, craft a strong and comprehensive support net. 

Veterans need employment training and placement assistance, mental health counseling, alcohol and drug addiction rehabilitation services, affordable housing, nutritional food services, access to medical care, and case managers to be their advocates.  What works best with any of these programs is a coordinated approach, and from veterans-helping-veterans groups.  The camaraderie, structure, and emotional support of being surrounded by their fellow servicemen and women help immensely. 

How can we help?  For those of us who would like to help our heroes in need, we civilians who “sit on the curb and clap as the parade goes by,” there are plenty of ways to be of assistance.  We can support emergency homeless shelters with donations of food, blankets, clothing, or our time.  We can volunteer to teach job skills or be a mentor or counselor to a homeless veteran, or there’s always a need for funding for these local and community-based programs.  A great place to get started is to browse through homeless eradication information and programs on the Veteran Administration’s website.  

Our service men and women sacrificed everything to protect us.  Now it’s time for all of us to say, “thank you,” by making sure they have a safe place to sleep and a chance at a good, regular life that the rest of us sometimes take for granted.

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