One in every three homeless men seeking refuge at a network of shelters is a veteran, a survey released Saturday showed. The figure far exceeds the percentage of veterans in the overall population or of male veterans among all American males.
“The scars of Vietnam still are not fully healed for many veterans,” said the Rev. Stephen E. Burger, executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions. The union, a non-denominational shelter organization, has conducted the survey for the past eight years.
“Large numbers of Vietnam veterans, unable to cope with the post-traumatic stress of their wartime service, continue to come through our doors.”
The union reported a gradual increase in the percentage of veterans using its shelters over the last three years. The missions say the rise may stem in part from reductions in the nation’s active-duty forces, but the study included no breakdown of how many veterans were from the Vietnam era.
“Many recently discharged veterans are having difficulty making the transition from the order of military life,” Burger said. “There aren’t many positions available in civilian life for tank drivers.”
Phil Rydman, spokesman for the Kansas City-based organization, said war-related stress and drug and alcohol abuse are among the most common problems facing homeless veterans.
“We’re dealing with the trauma of coming back from war, plus the addictions and substance abuse that these fellows have,” Rydman said.
The survey, conducted at 133 shelters across the country, found that 34 percent of the 10,400 men seeking refuge were veterans of war or military service.
In 1991 the union survey showed 29 percent veterans, a figure that remained stable until 1993. Then it began a steady increase to the current level.
By comparison, the Veterans Administration estimates there are almost 27 million veterans in all, about one in 10 of the total population. Male veterans represent about 19 percent of the male population.
Some of union’s missions have developed programs designed specifically for veterans in response to the veterans’ growing ranks among the homeless. At the Union Gospel Mission of St. Paul, Minn., an American Legion Post is established inside the shelter, and sheltering homeless veterans provide counseling and rehabilitation services for other veterans.
National statistics on the homeless vary widely. In 1994, a Clinton administration task force estimated that 7 million Americans were homeless sometime during the second half of the 1980s, far more than 1990 Census calculation of 600,000 people. Of the 7 million total, the government estimated that half a million, or about 7 percent, were veterans.
More recently, the VA put the number of homeless veterans at about 250,000.
In either case, the VA has said, the demand for homeless services far exceeds the government’s ability to cope with the problem. VA officials have said they depend on private organizations such as International Union of Gospel Missions.
A reason for the difficulty of estimating the homeless has to do with the method of counting.
The Clinton administration counts those who fall in and out of homelessness over time. Past administrations have used a “snapshot” method that counts the number of homeless on a given night. That figure has been estimated at about 600,000.