Adjusting to civilian life after serving in the military has always been a daunting challenge for soldiers, but as the Iraq war continues with no end in sight, an increasing number of returning American soldiers are finding it tough merely to put a roof over their heads.
According to advocates for the homeless, about 100 Iraq War vets are currently homeless, and they expect that number to increase dramatically if US troops stay in Iraq for several years, as Bush administration officials have admitted they will have to.
"Americans think the VA [the U.S. Veterans Administration] is wonderful, but that's a lot of crap," said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless Veterans (NCHV) in Washington, DC. "The VA doesn't have enough resources to take care of our veterans, and Congress doesn't want to pay for them." The NCHV has 350 member organizations in 46 states, providing shelter, food and other services to homeless vets.
Maria Fostarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, DC, agreed that the VA lacks the resources to do its job well, and added: "Budgets are not acts of God. They are political choices. The VA needs to be out there making the case for veterans."
As some Iraq war vets become homeless, they join the approximately 300,000 veterans the VA estimates are homeless in the US at any given moment and the half-million who experience homelessness in the course of a year. Nearly 47 percent of homeless vets served during the US assault on Viet Nam and surrounding countries.
No organization, including the VA itself, keeps thorough statistics on homeless vets, but the agency has determined a profile of the homeless vet population. Nearly all are male and single. More than half suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems; more than two-thirds were enlisted for three or more years; and about a third were stationed in a war zone.
Michael Stoops is Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, a separate organization based in Washington, DC. He stressed that homeless vets are not "losers," as some people might think. About 89 percent of homeless veterans received honorable discharges from their branch of service, Stoops noted, citing an NCHV statistic. "It's outrageous that anyone who has put their life on the line for their country should have to live on the street," Stoops commented.
Estimates of how many homeless vets are currently served by VA-affiliated programs and services vary greatly, but the VA itself admits the number taking advantage of its services of any kind is only a minority, with around 40,000 benefiting from housing-related programs each year, mostly through on-the-ground outreach organizations like NCHV. According to most estimates, hundreds of thousands of veterans who experience homelessness at some point during the year do not receive any VA benefits at all.
The White House's 2006 budget proposal includes a small increase in funding for programs that help homeless veterans. Boone said NCHV is pleased with the increase, but said her group estimates that at least twice the amount -- or about $200 million -- would be required to help shelter all the veterans currently looking for assistance. She said the new budget will add an additional 1,073 beds for homeless veterans nationwide and provide three times that many with other services.
In the future, many homeless Iraq war vets will need mental health treatment, Boone predicted. "Studies show that mental health issues for homeless vets begin later in their lives -- as much as twelve years later," she explained. "They will seem to be doing well mentally, despite being on the street, and then some event will trigger a problem. The public should be really concerned about that because the VA doesn't have the facilities or resources to treat the current number of homeless vets with mental health issues, let alone any new ones."
Statistics from the VA show that as of July 2004, nearly 28,000 veterans of the current Iraq war sought health care from the federal agency and that one in every five was diagnosed with a mental disorder. A study that appeared in the July 2004 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that 17 percent of service members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for major depression and general anxiety disorder.
A recent NCHV survey shows that combat veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to request help from homeless volunteer service providers. The survey was conducted in response to the growing number of inquiries from journalists and government officials involved in veteran and budgetary affairs, Boone said.
Meanwhile, say veterans' advocates, the Pentagon appears to be a in state of denial. While admitting to some problems in treating soldiers returning from Iraq, Pentagon officials have told the press that the situation has been addressed.
Homeless vet advocates remain unimpressed. "The military has done a terrible job easing vets back into American life once their tour of duty ends," Stoops said.
In a recent NBC nightly news report, Dr. Alfonso Batres, head of the VA's transition assistance program, said it was up to retiring veterans to seek help. "You may offer all the programs in the world, but if they don't come in to receive those services then it's very difficult to provide them access," Batres said.
Homeless advocates said the VA is wrong to put the onus on vets and expect them to know what services are available. "Isn't it the job of the VA, as a federal agency, to make the people it serves aware of how [the VA] can help?" Boone asked.
Stoops said, "That type of attitude shows that the system is broken and why we will see more [returning] vets from the Iraq War end up on the streets of America."
As Congress gears up for new term, the NCHV has adopted a comprehensive political agenda that focuses on homelessness prevention strategies and on adequate funding levels for community based veteran service providers. The organization and its allies are lobbying Congress to provide an increase for the Homeless Veterans Revitalization Program (HVRP) and the Veterans Workforce Investment Program (VWIP), the only federal projects specifically dedicated to providing employment training and placement services to American veterans.
The NCHV warns that, without an increase in government funding, a number of programs receiving government grants will decrease and there will be no new grants for new programs.
Meanwhile, advocates for homeless vets would like to see Americans who have strongly supported US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan step forward and get involved with the issue. "You see all those cars with yellow ribbons saying Support Our Troops,'" Boone said. "What you don't see are signs saying 'Support Our Veterans.' But when those men and women take off their uniforms, that's when they need support the most."