WASHINGTON – Veterans make up one in four homeless people in the United States, though they are only 11 percent of the general adult population, according to a report to be released today.
And homelessness is not just a problem among middle-age and elderly veterans. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are trickling into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help with finding a job.
The Veterans Affairs Department has identified 1,500 homeless veterans from the current wars and says 400 of them have participated in its programs specifically targeting homelessness.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a public education nonprofit, based the findings of its report on numbers from Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau. 2005 data estimated that 194,254 homeless people out of 744,313 on any given night were veterans.
In comparison, the VA says that 20 years ago, the estimated number of veterans who were homeless on any given night was 250,000.
Some advocates say such an early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.
“We’re going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous,” said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.
While services to homeless veterans have improved in the past 20 years, advocates hope more will be done to prevent homelessness and provide affordable housing to the younger veterans while there’s a window of opportunity.
“When the Vietnam War ended, that was part of the problem. The war was over, it was off TV, nobody wanted to hear about it,” said John Keaveney, a Vietnam veteran and a founder of New Directions in Los Angeles, which provides substance abuse help, job training and shelter to veterans.
“I think they’ll be forgotten,” Keaveney said of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “People get tired of it. It’s not glitzy that these are young, honorable, patriotic Americans. They’ll just be veterans, and that happens after every war.”
Keaveney said it’s difficult for his group to persuade some homeless Iraq veterans to stay for treatment and help because they don’t relate to the older veterans. Those who stayed have had success – one is now a stockbroker and another is applying to be a police officer, he said.
The Iraq vets seeking help with homelessness are more likely to be women, less likely to have substance abuse problems, but more likely to have mental illness – mostly related to post-traumatic stress, said Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the VA.
Overall, 45 percent of participants in the VA’s homeless programs have a diagnosable mental illness and more than three out of four have a substance abuse problem, while 35 percent have both, Dougherty said.