Homeless Veterans' Sacrifices Merit Special Attention

Mental trauma and emotional wounds mean many vets end up in the streets. They deserve better.
September 30, 2014
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

A number of the municipalities in the City Accelerator initiative identified homelessness among the short list of critical urban issues affecting their communities. It is unquestionably a major problem across the United States. However, as if homelessness were not heart wrenching enough, the sight of an individual living on the street dirty and disoriented wearing ragtag military fatigues makes the situation even more tragic. We've all seen those pictures in stark black and white. It is a compelling and depressing image. 

In September 2014, NPR aired a brief series on a special free event for homeless veterans called "Stand Down," which has been ongoing for the last nine years in San Diego. Services include health, dental and personal care -- all offered free of charge. One of the NPR segments focused on the fact that today's homeless veterans often include families with children -- and the numbers and proportion of such homeless families served at the annual event has been trending upward in recent years. 
 
Another segment included a pop-up photo studio where homeless veterans were offered an opportunity to have a portrait taken. One female veteran remarked that someone once told her that she didn't "look homeless," to which she replied, "How is a homeless person supposed to look?" It is a point well made. The general impression and inescapable conclusion is exactly that -- as a rule, homeless veterans look just like everybody else. A homeless veteran accompanied by a family often looks nothing like that stark black and white stereotypical picture of homelessness. The fact that it might be possible for homeless veterans to practically disappear into the urban landscape might give a false sense that the problem is less than it really is.
 
But those hidden wounds of war have lasting effects. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that homeless veterans mostly live in cities and suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The challenging statistics are presented in The Wall Street Journal article, "Veterans Try New Approaches to Heal the Wounds of War,” which notes that in 2012, the VA spent more than $3 billion on PTSD treatment and the Pentagon spent about $294 million more. Further, it is stated that "VA doctors estimate that up to 20 percent of the 1.9 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will suffer PTSD at some point during their lives," … and "Untreated veterans with PTSD often suffer in their relationships and work, experts say, sometimes seeking solace in alcohol and drugs."
 
There are some hopeful signs. The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress indicates that some numbers have been trending in a positive direction. From a high of over 76,000 homeless veterans recorded in 2010, the number has declined to 57,849 in 2013. The point-in-time count is based on a single night in January and the quick snapshot census is repeated each year. In 2009, President Obama and the VA set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. The VA budgeted $1.4 billion in FY 2014 for specialized homeless programs and $5.4 billion for health care for homeless veterans. This national challenge has been taken up by cities and other partners across the country. 
 
It’s encouraging that progress is being made, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has correctly stated that even one veteran without safe and stable housing is one too many. And we must remember that wars are ongoing and the stream of wounded warriors will continue for many years to come. 
 
In Chattanooga, back in the 1980s we had one of those local characters that tend to stand out and stick in your mind. His appearance -- bushy hair and a long unkempt beard -- attracted attention and his behavior was equally conspicuous. Those who knew him said that he was sometimes approachable and seemed harmless. He usually could be found in or near Collegedale -- a small town and adjacent suburb.  His usual means of transportation was a rusty bicycle that he used like a pack horse for his bags of scavenged aluminum cans. From time to time he would add hand-lettered cardboard signs proclaiming his personal stance on one issue or another and he would spread the word as he pedaled furiously along the county roads and less-traveled state highways. Most people watched for him and gave him space. Mostly, he kept to himself. Little seemed to be known about him except that he was a Vietnam veteran and that war had left him with mental wounds and emotional scars like our more recent wars have left so many. I asked about him, but nobody was quite sure where he stayed. He was homeless and camped in various places. 
 
One cold winter morning they found him dead -- frozen to the ground in a grassy field where he had been sleeping.  All that anyone could think or say was that perhaps we could have done more. 
 
Participants in City Accelerator have committed their communities to move beyond studies and to actually do more to apply effective solutions. Concurrent diagnosis and full-spectrum treatment options are being employed to address the multiple issues affecting the poor and homeless in ways to make them more independent and to keep them out of institutionalized situations. Homeless veterans are a subset of the greater population, but given their unique characteristics and sacrifice, they certainly make up a group that merits special attention.  
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