Everyone can agree that a veteran who has served our country should never have to live on the street. But homelessness among veterans is a complex problem, and a difficult one to resolve.
This is a more complicated issue than simply “taking care of our service members” with employment, financial and medical assistance (although those resources are important). Some veterans have trouble transitioning to civilian employment and civilian life. Many return to face the same issues of racism, sexism or other employment discrimination that made them choose the service in the first place. Wartime veterans are often dealing with complex emotional, physical or psychological disabilities that complicate their return to the workforce. In extreme cases, mental health issues can even cause veterans to refuse the very resources that could help them.
How extensive is the problem?
It’s very hard to get accurate counts of the homeless population, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that almost 50,000 veterans were homeless at the beginning of 2014. The good news is, that number has significantly dropped since 2010, when the figure was close to 75,000.
Several factors combine to make the situation even more challenging in the near future. Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to have traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), two conditions that correlate with homelessness. There will also be more female veterans returning from those conflicts, and the problem of homelessness among single mothers is particularly heartbreaking.
Who is at risk?
Which veterans are at highest risk of homelessness? According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, ethnicity is an important factor. Although just under 14% of the U.S. veteran population is African American or Hispanic, a full 40% of homeless vets come from that population. That’s an enormous discrepancy, and likely reflects employment and housing discrimination faced by minorities.
Only 5% of veterans are aged 18 to 30, but 9% of homeless vets are in that age group. So, even though the bulk of homeless vets (41%) are between 31 and 50, homeless vets are younger on average than the veteran population.
Currently, 1.4 million veterans are considered “at risk” of homelessness.
As veterans return from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number at risk will increase. Typically, returning soldiers don’t start out homeless. Over time, emotional and mental health issues can wear down a veteran’s support network. PTSD can lead to substance abuse, and in the years following the troops’ return home, the homeless veteran population will gradually swell.
What role do PTSD and depression play?
Soldiers dealing with PTSD or depression, whether due to battle, sexual assault or both, make up a disproportionate number of the homeless. Most people are aware of the flashbacks and hyper-vigilance (“jumpiness”) that are characteristic of PTSD. But the disorder has other symptoms, including guilt, depression, irritability, insomnia, guilt, and self-destructive behavior, as well as difficulty functioning socially and concentrating. The disorder is chronic and ongoing, and can interfere with employment and relationships — leaving the sufferer without any income or support system. It’s very common for people with PTSD and depression to escape their symptoms by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, which only compounds the problems that lead to homelessness.
What can be done?
The Veterans Administration has committed to ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015, and is working with a network of federal and local agencies to address this multi-faceted issue. If you know a veteran who is homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, call 877-4AID-VET (424-3838) to be connected with services. The hotline is operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you’d like to get involved, visit the VA’s website to download brochures and informational cards that you can print and distribute in your community. Homeless veterans who are suspicious of intervention will often respond best to other veterans, so if you are a veteran who’d like to get involved, please connect with the VA and volunteer.
Lauren Haas was the founder and publisher of The St. Louis Area Family Gazette magazine, and editor-in-chief of Marketplace Magazine. Now, Lauren is a full-time freelance writer who travels the world, using St. Louis as her base. Contact her at Lauren@LaurenHaas.com