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America’s Homeless Heroes

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"The Great Depression" by Maggie Smith freedigitalphotos.net

The most recent survey released by Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that over 136,000 homeless veterans spent at least one night in homeless shelters sometime during 2009; on any given night, over 75,000 veterans sleep in homeless shelters or on the streets.  Other sources estimate higher numbers; achieving an exact count of a transient population presents challenges to researchers.  These veterans represent between fifteen and thirty percent of America’s homeless population.  The striking problem with those numbers is that veterans make up only about a tenth of the U.S. adult population.  Statistically, veterans are substantially more likely than civilians to become homeless.

Who are America’s homeless veterans?

Minorities have historically been demographically over-represented in the military and, unfortunately, among the homeless population as well.  The disproportionate numbers of minorities among homeless veterans is likely indicative of wider socioeconomic issues which must be addressed, rather than problems of racial disparity in the veteran community.

Although female veterans make up a relatively small percentage of the homeless population, they too are over-represented.  While only about one male veteran in a hundred is homeless, about one female veteran in fifty is homeless.  Female veterans also appear two to four times more likely than civilian females to become homeless.  Unique challenges faced by female veterans following their military service need to be identified and addressed; the percentage of women serving in the U.S. military is increasing steadily, so the percentage of female veterans among the homeless is likely to increase as well.

Nearly nine in ten homeless veterans left their military service with an honorable discharge, and nearly that many report having a high school diploma or GED, compared to just over half the civilian homeless population.

That higher education rate is common among veterans in general.  As a result, most veterans fare relatively well financially; while about ten percent of the American population lives below the poverty line, only about five percent of veterans live in poverty.  Problematically, impoverished veterans seem more likely than impoverished civilians to slide into homelessness.  Of adults in poverty, about five percent become homeless at some point; veterans in poverty become homeless at about double that rate.

Why are poor veterans so much more vulnerable to homelessness than poor civilians?

Recent data suggests that at least part of the answer may be linked to social isolation.  Ninety-six percent of homeless veterans served at reporting homeless shelters arrived alone; only four percent arrived with family members.  In contrast, about twenty percent of the general homeless population usually arrives at shelters with at least one family member.  It is possible that this lack of social support networks among impoverished veterans may be related to the same factors as the disproportionately high divorce rate among military members.  The resulting shortage of social and family connections among this portion of the veteran population may make them more vulnerable to homelessness once they become impoverished.

Along with this social isolation, many homeless veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and/or other mental health issues linked to their experiences in combat and their difficulties since.  Too often, these issues or the stress of poverty or homelessness can lead to substance abuse; the HUD/VA survey found higher rates of alcohol abuse among homeless veterans than among the rest of the homeless population.

What can be done to help homeless veterans?

Improved access to counseling and other treatment for mental health issues, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, is among the most urgent needs of homeless veterans.  Other urgent needs include medical care, safe and stable housing, and employment assistance.  It is important to focus on empowerment rather than handouts; data shows that veterans fare better and are more likely to participate in programs that help them feel involved, capable, and successful rather than helpless.

Preventative efforts are also crucial.  Current estimates place between half a million and 1.5 million veterans below the poverty line, which places them at risk for homelessness.  There is an urgent need for programs and funding to identify and support these veterans before they become homeless.  The economic vulnerability of impoverished veterans also underscores the need to avoid cutting veterans’ benefits, as these benefits might be all that prevents an “at-risk” veteran from become a homeless veteran.

The plight of homeless veterans is receiving significant high-level attention.  The White House has identified ending homelessness among veterans within five years as a “key priority”.  Increased policy emphasis on helping homeless veterans, and recent collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs and community organizations, have made progress in recent years, but even with recent expansions, the VA’s programs and funding remain limited.  All told, the VA’s array of programs for homeless veterans reached over 90,000 people in 2009, but the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that over 100,000 more were not served by VA programs, making local government and nonprofit organizations the best or only resource for many homeless veterans.

Research indicates that community programs may also be the most effective approach to helping homeless veterans, especially if programs involve other veterans as sources of support, encouragement, camaraderie, and assistance.  These programs draw from the strengths of military culture- close bonds, teamwork, leadership, and individual strength combined with mutual support.

How can YOU help America’s homeless heroes?

First, learn about the issues facing homeless veterans in general, and their specific needs in your area, so that you can be a knowledgeable advocate and make sure that your skills are applied in the most useful way.  Then, find organizations in your area that are helping homeless veterans; the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has a searchable database on its website, and the Department of Veterans Affairs website offers a listing of national organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.  Volunteer with one of these organizations if you can; your skills, time, and compassion can make a difference!  You can also contact your elected representatives to encourage continued support of programs for homeless veterans and preservation of veterans’ benefits.