Iraq, Afghan vets turning up homeless already

From the June 3 Stars & Stripes:

Advocates See Veterans of War on Terror Joining the Ranks of the Homeless
By Leo Shane III
Stars and Stripes

Friday 03 June 2005

Washington – Advocates for the homeless already are seeing veterans from the war on terror living on the street, and say the government must do more to ease their transition from military to civilian life.

Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said about 70 homeless veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan contacted her group’s facilities in 2004, and another 125 homeless veterans from those conflicts last year petitioned the Department of Veterans Affairs for assistance.

“It’s not a big wave, but it’s an indicator that we still haven’t done our job,” she said. “I think that our nation would be very embarrassed if they knew that.”

The group, founded in 1990, is a national network of charitable organizations designed to provide resources and aid for homeless veterans.

Veterans Affairs officials estimate that about 250,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and another 250,000 experience homelessness at some point.

Boone said the reasons behind the veterans’ housing problems are varied: Some have emotional and mental issues from their combat experience, some have trouble finding work after leaving the military, some have health care bills which result in financial distress.

George Basher, director of the New York State Department of Veterans Affairs, said he believes guardsmen and reservists are particularly at risk because they often bypass resources like the Transition Assistance Program when they return home.

“Those are the ones most likely to have private health insurance, so they’re likely to show up at an HMO looking for treatment and not a VA hospital,” he said. “There’s no central place for treatment.”

Still, Pete Dougherty, coordinator for the Veterans’ Affairs Department’s homeless programs, said veterans today have more options – outpatient facilities, counselors, job training programs – than the troops returning from the Vietnam War.

“Most of the folks we’re seeing now are worried about losing their homes and think they won’t be able to afford to stay in them,” he said. “Before, the vets were out there but were unseen and unnoticed. Now we can reach out and make a difference sooner.”

But Boone added that most veterans don’t seek help for mental and emotional problems for years after their return from combat, meaning the problem of homelessness among war on terror veterans will likely grow.

“We’re still going to have homeless veterans because we haven’t tackled how to deal with the separation issue,” she said.

See our recent feature, “The War’s Toll at Home” by Peter Gorman