Most who follow the news hear about the need for housing for homeless vets. What we don’t always hear are the many reasons why so many vets end up on our streets. Clearly, there is not enough housing for vets, a responsibility not only of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but also of the local communities where they live. Federal, state, county and city governments need to devote more resources to this pervasive problem.
Why do vets have so much homelessness as compared with others in our unhoused population? According to Boston University research, “veterans face an elevated risk due to stressors they might experience while they’re on active duty, combat experiences. When you look specifically within members of the military, combat exposure and PTSD are associated with higher risk of homelessness.” Pre-military stressors also contribute to homelessness. Lower socioeconomic status appears to affect those who have served in wars after Vietnam.
According to the same study at BU, on a given night, there are around 37,000 veterans experiencing homelessness across the United States, and that’s a number that’s decreased by about 50 percent since 2009. That is due in part to the VA’s investments to relieve the problem. Clearly, that is not enough.
A local homeless vet’s story
An 89 year old man who had served in the Korean war landed on the doorstep of a client at AgingParents.com. Our client, the homeowner, was 99 years of age, with full time caregivers. The last thing he wanted was for his old buddy to move in to his two bedroom condo. The client’s daughter called in desperation: “What can I do? Dad doesn’t want him there but he has no place to go!”
Getting involved (pro bono) required coming to the client’s home and meeting with “Ivan”, the vet. I asked him what his plans were, and where he would go, as our client had given him a deadline to leave in a week. His response: “I have no idea”. As a former Public Health Nurse, I certainly could not ignore his plight. I got on the phone right away and went through the bureaucratic levels until I found a person in the same county at the local VA office who said he could help. Remarkably, a worker came to the rescue and got Ivan a bed in a long term homeless shelter within 24 hours. The VA had a two-year contract with the shelter. That was a huge relief.
Next, Ivan had to engage with the VA for benefits, healthcare and long term housing. He had never entered the system, had never applied for benefits, and had no experience with the VA at all. He was not computer literate. He was well educated, had once practiced law, and had lost everything, including his apartment, by investing in risky ventures that did not work out. He was frail, did not know how to look for things online and did not know what to do. After some pushing, I was able to get the reluctant VA worker to take him for healthcare at the VA hospital in a city nearby. It took even more pushing to get the online application for VA benefits started with the VA worker, who seemed rather slow to act, once Ivan had a roof over his head. Ivan was wobbly on his feet. At least I could find an unused cane and show him how to use it. He happily accepted it.
At last check, Ivan was grateful for being in a shelter. In my view, he would have perished quickly if the only hope for shelter was his leased car, as he was about to have it repossessed due to being behind in his payments. He had only one suitcase and a few personal items in that car. At least now, he was “in the VA system”, and was certainly eligible for a monthly benefit. He would be on a long waiting list for permanent veterans’ housing, all of which was full at that time.
Ivan is just one example of how vets become homeless. Being elderly and physically frail made things harder. When I checked, all of the applications for anything he needed from the VA were only available online. This happened during the pandemic when the VA offices were all closed. I got the phone number for him to that office, which was how he was able to continue with his applications and get healthcare. Without anyone to help him, he would not likely have survived for long.
Consider that vets with mental health issues, substance use disorder, low income jobs and lack of skill in accessing benefits may all contribute to what we see on our streets. Everyone who knows a vet at risk can do a little something to help when opportunity presents itself. Perhaps any other person who met Ivan when I did could also have assisted by at least making calls, going online to see what’s available and connecting them with the nearest VA office.
Veterans’ homeless is an ongoing problem that has complex underpinnings. Though generally, things are better now than a few years ago, it will take a long time to substantially improve on the housing crisis for our vets. Every war has its particular risks for those who serve in combat positions. What each person who is not a vet can do will vary with when you see an opportunity to do even the smallest thing to help. If this painful matter bothers you as it does many of us, you can donate to the cause of creating homes. Many sites are available for this.
Should you have the opportunity to direct any at-risk vet to a resource, there is Supportive Services for Veterans Families, an official government site for managing cases. They can refer to local VA service offices and other sites for accessing help.