Homelessness Among Veterans: A Challenging and Persistent Problem

Memorial Day has come and gone. The parades are over, the flowers are fading, and the veterans who participated have packed their uniforms away until next year. However, one group of veterans - vets who are homeless -- has little to celebrate.

According to some reports, there are at least 62,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Other sources say that at least 15 percent of post-911 veterans are homeless. Although these figures are shocking, they actually represent an improvement over a few years ago. According to some community service organizations, the reason for the reduced number of homeless veterans is growing awareness of the problem from the federal level to the local level. Many events, from 5K runs to bake sales, raise money and understanding, especially around Memorial Day.

Increased awareness has led to improved services for this group of veterans, shelters, employment transition programs, temporary housing, job counseling, mental health services, drug rehab clinics and many other services now exist to help homeless vets. Like the reduced numbers, the existence of more extensive services is good news. However, it is unlikely that homelessness among veterans will disappear entirely.

Why is this such an intractable problem? One lawmaker points to the length of deployments endured by current members of the armed services. "Our active military force today is remarkable; never has a force been so continuously involved for so long in combat," says Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. "This service has taken a toll; we see many pressures. There are other pressures on those who've served before."

Veterans problems include more than homelessness. In fact, homelessness is often a symptom of mental illness of some type, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is not only a consequence of serving in a high-risk military zone; female service members who represent around 15 percent of the military are vulnerable to sexual assault while serving. Victims often experience Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a kind of post-trauma illness, after being sexually assaulted while in the military. Although there are fewer homeless female veterans, they exist, often because they are suffering from MST.

According to Dr. Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University and author of Nimo's War, Emma's War, "You come out of the Afghan or Iraqi war, as an American woman veteran, at a time when the housing market is terrible, the banks don't trust you, and its hard to get a job, and you've experienced mental health issues as a result of what happened to you in the military. It's not any wonder that there so many women veterans now who are really suffering the loss of housing."

Despite the availability of services, especially in urban areas, it is often difficult to provide homeless veterans - male and female -- with needed mental health and medical treatment. Vets often do not seek treatment by themselves. Moreover, they sometimes refuse to accept assistance from the VA or community organizations when it is offered. The result is vets do not receive needed treatment of their physical and mental illnesses, and too many die as a result.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have joined together to address the problem at the federal level. The idea is to provide veterans with stable housing. In fact, the motto of the joint partnership is "Housing First." By getting homeless vets into a permanent, safe housing situation, it is much easier to provide them with the medical and mental health services they need. Case workers can follow up with vets, because it is possible to find them when they have a fixed address. They are not subject to personal crime, abuse and illness caused by being homeless.

The partnership involves providing homeless vets with HUD housing vouchers. There are currently more than 42,500 formerly homeless veterans now living in stable environments because of HUD vouchers.

Veterans should know that even if there is no HUD housing in their neighborhoods, many services exists to help combat veterans' homelessness. A good starting point is the local VA office, veterans groups such as the Vietnam Veterans of America, and social service agencies, all of whom have allocated resources to help homeless veterans obtain housing, jobs and medical treatment.