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Feminspire | April 18, 2014

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Why Are So Many Veterans in the US Homeless?

Why Are So Many Veterans in the US Homeless?

Yesterday, we in the USA observed Veteran’s Day. It is a day to celebrate and honor all of the men and women who have served in the US military, and falls on the same day as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day, which are observed in other countries, marking the end of World War I. Like many other US holidays, it has become quite commercialized, but the “thank a veteran” mantra is one that has remained strong, encouraging citizens to shake the hands of any veterans they encounter to thank them for serving our country.

November 10-18 also marks National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week in the US. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are approximately 770,000 people who are homeless today. 107,000 of those sleeping on the streets are US veterans. Happy Veteran’s Day, indeed.

The idea behind Veteran’s Day is that these men and women provided a great service for our country and deserve our thanks, but these numbers suggest that something is off. Why are so many servicemen and women sleeping on the streets?

There is no one answer. Disabilities, addiction, and mental illness are factors in homelessness anyway, but could they also be the most likely causes for homelessness among veterans? In 2008, 5.5 million veterans had a disability. Four years later, that number can only have increased. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is rampant among veterans: according to US Department of Veteran Affairs, 11-20% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are affected by PTSD, as well as 10% of Gulf War veterans and 30% of Vietnam War veterans. Substance abuse appears to be a growing problem among veterans, as well. Couple these with the job market and/or a particular veteran’s ability to hold a job given their circumstances and we’ll be able to examine reasons behind such high homelessness rates among veterans.

From the National Coalition on the Homeless:

“Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that require people to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. Only a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, affordable housing, and access to health care will bring an end to homelessness.

So what can we do to help our veterans? It’s not that there is necessarily a lack of people trying to help. There are public assistance programs available, coalitions advocating for veterans, and people of all ages putting forth efforts to raise homelessness awareness, yet still, almost 15% of all homeless people are veterans.

What we, as a society and not necessarily individuals, need to do involves more than week-long tent cities and coat drives. Becoming aware of what homeless life is like and providing food, clothing, and other necessities to homeless people is obviously incredibly important, but we can’t change homelessness on a societal scale without help from the federal government. With threats of cuts to programs like welfare, Social Security, and public housing, the problem is only going to get worse. “Every man for himself” doesn’t work in a society, and we can’t keep thanking our veterans by taking away programs that will help them readjust to civilian life.

Mock tent cities don’t affect legislature on their own. It takes writing letters to your representatives and senators, protesting, petitioning, and finding other ways to get lawmakers to bring their attention to the homeless population. The best way you can thank a veteran is to do what you can do get them off the streets.

Written by Alisse Desrosiers
Follow her on Twitter, @alisse_marie!

  • Elle

    Thank you for this article. I have done work in homelessness advocacy (focusing on veterans homelessness) for awhile now, and it is really wonderful to see this issue finally coming to attention. Veterans’ homelessness is an enormous problem, and one that requires time, money, and a thoughtful overhaul of the way homelessness assistance has worked in the US. If you’re interested, here is a blog post (from a really fantastic organization) about it:
    Shifting to housing first permanent supportive housing is a necessary step, but it takes money, and getting that money takes a lot of hard work. Thankfully, some progress is being made– but the more pressure we can put on the government to provide funding, the better.

    I would also add that while veterans’ homelessness is a particularly important issue (and one that comes with many of its particular problems; forthcoming research suggests almost twice as many homeless veterans have disabilities as their non-veteran peers, they are more likely to suffer from addiction, and they are more likely to be chronically homeless. Additionally, disturbances in family relationships resulting from these problems frequently result in these veterans’ homelessness long after they return from the war.), I think it is important not to focus too tightly in on veterans, at the expense of other programs. Veterans are, to be sure, the “deserving poor”, as they say. But it should be equally important to us to help all homeless Americans– something people often forget, particularly as they use their comfortable position to denigrate or condescend to the homeless.

    …. that was incredibly tl;dr, but basically, thank you. Lovely article.

    • Alisse Marie

      “But it should be equally important to us to help all homeless Americans– something people often forget, particularly as they use their comfortable position to denigrate or condescend to the homeless.”

      I agree entirely. The idea that veterans are “the deserving poor” while other poor people are not is so far beyond upsetting that I don’t even know how to articulate it. US society’s attitudes toward the poor and homeless is abhorrent; we can thank Reagan for putting the idea of “welfare queens” in everyone’s heads. Tossing off the plight of the poor by calling them lazy, bums, what-have-you, is in itself lazy. Who wants to be poor? Who is so lazy that they would rather live on the street than work? Especially now, with US national unemployment at nearly 8%; it’s not easy to just “get a job,” especially for homeless people who have no way to prepare for a job.

      This is probably also very tl;dr. I just have a lot of feelings.

      • Elle

        No, I completely agree. Every time someone says something like that I want to ask if they actually, seriously think that anyone ever woke up one day and said to themselves “huh. Today, I’m feeling lazy. I think I’d rather just be homeless than continue to go to my job.” Ugh.

        • smith

          the homeless have always been forgotten and will continue to be so. even adam and eve were homeless, unemployed and broke. the only thing that will change is this. things will get worse as more and more people become homeless, unemployed and broke.

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