Though some might associate the term “homeless vets” with nothing more than a line from Billy Joel, the sad fact is that twenty-two years after the recording of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, little has changed for returning soldiers. It is estimated that over 10,000 homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are living on the goodwill of family or friends or on the street, many without prospect of changing the situation.
It is believed that between 130,000 and 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Currently 20% of the military is female, 10 times the number at the end of World War II. And while women make up 3% of all homeless veterans, when veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan arenas are considered separately, the proportion is more than quadrupled; up to 13% of homeless veterans from these conflicts are women.
The major causes of homelessness among veterans include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), depression, and substance abuse. More often than not these conditions are interwoven and require professional assistance to overcome. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution and every case is as individual as the homeless person in question.
Simplistic answers and stereotypes do great harm.
The perception that these are weak, scared and unintelligent people is far from the truth. These people have survived the rigors of the military and war; often the trauma they have experienced has been the result of their courage under fire; almost nine of every ten homeless veteran has been awarded an honorable discharge. Almost the same number have completed high school or a GED program.
Professionals in the field have found that the answer is in understanding and in the community. Programs that have been successful often involve “veteran helping veteran” groups, where those who understand the experiences of the sufferers can provide camaraderie and encouragement. Small community-based ventures that provide substance-free environments and positive role models have proved effective where more clinical approaches have failed.
One solution begins with community.
Having been trained in a culture of an interdependent community, it makes sense that veterans will respond more positively to a situation where they feel part of something rather than being singled out as in need of help. They are rarely satisfied with a “hand-out” and this is supported by the fact that only 25% of all homeless veterans have made use of Veteran Affairs Homeless Services.
The battle to care for the courageous and dedicated members of the Armed Forces is a complex and often desperate one. Groups such as the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans provide information and guidance; their website, http://www.nchv.org, has links to community-based projects in every state. The plight of the homeless veteran is often seen as the problem of an individual, but the reality is that the solution requires the support of a community and the responsibility of a country.