Veteran Homelessness: The Battle Is Just Beginning
Why are 50,000 veterans homeless each night—and how can rescue missions help?
by Sue Rosenfeld
Whether they were stationed stateside or overseas, many veterans smoothly transition from active military service to civilian employment and life. And many separating from the military after one or more tours of duty in combat zones do successfully start new jobs, re-engage with families, integrate back into society, adjust to civilian life, and navigate veteran benefits and resources.
But for thousands more, it’s a different story—stepping back onto American soil isn't the end of the battle for them. Instead, returning home means the beginning of another kind of battle: A battle for stability in housing, finances, health, and support systems that can all too easily end in homelessness. On a single night in January 2014, out of the 578,424 people experiencing homelessness, 49,933 were veterans according to The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress Point-in-Time Estimates. Almost 10 percent of those veterans (an estimated 4,722) were women.
Today's veterans span generations, with older veterans from World War II through the post-Vietnam era alongside younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They entered the military at a wide range of ages, with and without independent living responsibilities prior to the military. Duties, ranks, and pay grades varied. As pay grades varied, so did income and pensions after discharge from the military.
While many members of the military acquire specific skills before their tours of duty, those military skills and experiences don’t always readily transfer to jobs for veterans returning home. Hidden battlefield can make keeping jobs and social situations challenging for some. Accessing systems, resources, and support are at times daunting for those coming back from war. "Frequently the comments we hear are that they have tried to unsuccessfully in the past get help and are unwilling to go through the process again," says Fay Ternan, director at Lewis County Gospel Mission in Chehalis, Washington.
Physical combat-related injuries not survivable in previous years are now often survivable because of advances in the medical field. The May 2012 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General on Homeless Incidence and Risk Factors for Becoming Homeless in Veterans indicates that the percentage of homeless veterans in their study diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury was two to three times higher than those veterans who are not homeless.
This same study also found a proportion of participants (male and female) had received military sexual trauma (MST) related treatment prior to being homeless. Female veterans received MST-related treatment at a higher percentage than their male counterparts, and the percentage of homeless veterans who had received MST-related treatment was three times higher than non-homeless veterans according to the study. The study also noted a generally higher percentage of MST-related treatment in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans than other veterans.
Health issues like anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to combat experiences—which previously did not get a lot of attention and often went undiagnosed—are now being identified, studied, and researched. While studies differ on quantifying a direct, causal link of these areas to homelessness, many attribute these as risk factors. The document Veteran Homelessness: A Supplemental Report to the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) indicates that veterans are more likely to enter the shelter system from jail, prison, a medical or mental health facility, or a substance abuse center.
No matter what situation a veteran comes from, where they served, or when they served, military and combat experience draws veterans together. It also sets them apart as a group. So for those veterans struggling with homelessness, the battle is both common and uncommon. While veterans do face unique challenges, they also face similar homelessness risk factors as others in the community: substance abuse/addiction (whether before or after military service), mental health issues, poverty, limited education, and lack of support systems.
Four overarching themes of veterans' needs were identified the CHALENG survey, also conducted by the VA: homeless prevention, permanent housing, financial, and family concerns. In the area of family concerns, childcare continued to be one of the top five highest unmet needs in the survey. Aging veterans, female veterans, and veterans with families were three areas the report recommended more work be done in.
Fluidity in Homelessness Numbers
While The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress Point-in-Time Estimates indicates that, overall, the homeless veterans population has declined by 33 percent, a state-by-state analysis shows a variance of increases and decreases in the homeless veteran population.
The proportion of homeless veterans relative to the overall homeless population also varies state by state.
And of course, as with general counts of homelessness, the “rules” don’t always stay the same, so the counts can differ easily even if the state of homelessness hasn’t changed.
Hope Still Alive
Today, AGRM missions are among other nonprofit organizations that along with community organizations and government agencies all reach out to veterans of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Within AGRM, many mission programs and services to veterans generally reflect those available to missions’ general populations—substance abuse treatment, classes/education, a spiritual component of chapel and/or Bible studies, counseling, drug and alcohol recovery, vocational training, job search assistance, meals, clothing, blankets/sleeping bags/tents/survival gear, housing, GED classes, computer and typing training, Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery groups, and support groups.
However, at times, the services are unique to veterans and/or have a specific veteran focus. For example, the Open Door Mission Foundation in Houston, Texas, provides respite care to veterans. Dick Druary, director of the Men's Development Center at Star of Hope Mission, notes that the mission has a weekly PTSD support group facilitated by a volunteer who is a retired Navy captain. Michelle Porter, executive director at Souls Harbor Rescue Mission in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says that it’s important for homeless veterans who have PTSD to tell their story as part of their healing journey. One of the mission's previous clients, a veteran now living independently, volunteers at the local veterans' hospital and listens to other veterans' stories to help them in their journey.
Boise Rescue Mission in Idaho and City Rescue Mission of Saginaw in Michigan have housing (dorms, single room occupancy, and/or apartments) specifically for veterans. People’s City Mission in Lincoln, Nebraska, has staff and programming dedicated to veterans and their particular needs, as does Boise Rescue Mission. Both City Rescue Mission of Saginaw and People's City Mission have contracts in place with the VA for housing and/or services. Open Door Mission Foundation in Houston has increased the beds in their substance abuse program for veterans and is working on getting VA approval for those.
Whether or not a mission has a specific program for veterans, mission staff members regularly need to take on the role of bridge and conduit to connect their clients with veteran resources. For example, when the staff at Lewis County Gospel Mission hears clients have been unsuccessful with and discouraged about accessing resources, they reach out to the veteran resources in their community. "We will have someone come visit the guest while they are still on the premises," says Fay Ternan. "We also encourage them to talk with the regional representatives for housing veterans who bring a motor home/office to your area once a week."
While it can sometimes be challenging to get timely disability determinations and/or housing approvals from federal agencies, there are also many opportunities for successes for missions. "We have a strong relationship with the Boise VA, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart,” says Bill Roscoe, President/CEO of Boise Rescue Mission. “We receive referrals from those groups. We are also a partner with the Veterans Treatment Courts in three jurisdictions, and provide our program to homeless Vets in those courts. We belong to a local veterans service provider group and referrals come from that group as well."
At Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the mission works closely with the local VA, and a veteran's representative comes twice a week to meet with veterans as well as other agency representatives for veteran services. The mission works with several community agencies and nonprofits to serve their veteran population. The same is true at The Paris Foundation, a mission in Elkton, Maryland. "We all meet on a monthly basis to foster communication and cooperation," says Executive Director Michael Brandon.
Involvement with local events and churches also enables missions to have a presence in the community. For example, Star of Hope Mission, Union Gospel Mission in Salem, Oregon, and other missions across the country participate in annual "Stand Down" events. In times of combat, a "stand down" serves as a place and time of safety off the battlefield for soldiers to rest. Today, community "stand downs," jointly coordinated by the VA and local communities, are a time and place to host a variety of veterans’ resources in one place for outreach to veterans.
The Veterans Village of San Diego lays claim to organizing the nation's first Stand Down event in 1988. To learn more about their story, visit www.vvsd.net; you can also search online for "Stand Down" to learn more. In the community around the Star of Hope Mission, many churches provide ministries specific to veterans that mission clients participate in, according to Dick Druary.
And in Idaho, funds from a local rodeo come alongside the work of Boise Rescue Mission. "A local Rodeo (Caldwell Night Rodeo) that is very popular and well attended has chosen the mission to disburse the funds they collect on Veterans Night at the Rodeo,” says Bill Roscoe. “We use the money for vets in need, homeless or not, by referral from our partners. This money, $7,000 to $10,000 per year, is used for housing (keeping a vet from being evicted), dental work, auto repairs, and gas/service for cars."
AGRM mission staffs see many of the same veteran needs that are represented in various veteran studies and reports: counseling, mental health services and health care, education, job training, and affordable housing. But they also see much more and their ministry to veterans reflects that. Bill Christian, director of social services at Bethesda Mission, says, "For me the biggest issue is not housing but a life-changing program. The VA is doing an excellent job in securing housing for veterans, but seeing the same issue move in with them when the crisis returns." And while Dick Druary recognizes the role of civil authorities providing some assistance, he is also passionate about changed lives: "We aim to win the trust of homeless veterans in order to help the move their focus from personal cataclysm to the power of Christ and the loving fellowship and strength of the Body of Christ," Dick says.
What that looks like in each veteran's life is different, but as for many others being served at missions across the nation, it is a place of hope and dignity for those who have offered the service of their lives to their country.
Sue Rosenfeld has been a freelance writer for more than 10 years, penning pieces for publications, corporations, and nonprofits. She lives in suburban Chicago, Illinois, and enjoys singing, reading, speaking, and traveling. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Battle Is Just Beginning" was originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Rescue, AGRM's bi-monthly magazine. For more information about Rescue, click here.