More ex-soldiers At Risk of Homelessness

Sarah Edmonds
Street News service

Tens of thousands of Western troops will leave Iraq and Afghanistan and make the journey home over the next couple of years. Those who then leave the military will face an even more perilous journey – the road back into civilian society, where weak economic growth has made it increasingly difficult to get work.

This is a road that has already led to poverty and even to homelessness for thousands of veterans who traveled it in better economic times. Those who follow in their footsteps will be entering the mainstream amid increased risk of recession in Europe and the United States and stubbornly high unemployment. Government agencies in the United States, Britain, Canada and other nations that support those who have served, have braced themselves for the expected influx of new veterans. Officials are implementing new programs to help ease the transition from the military to civilian life. The great unknown, though, is how the economy will fare in the months ahead. Dr. Susan Angell, executive director of the Veterans Homeless Initiative at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA will be keeping a concerned eye on those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, given the trends already evident in the job market. “That population, that young population, has the highest unemployment rate of any of our veteran populations and it’s much higher than the overall unemployment rate. So we’re very concerned about this group,” she said. According to Angell, joblessness among younger veterans is running around 11.5 percent — higher still among female veterans. Jobs are crucial, since officials and homeless experts agree that while a variety of factors make some veterans more vulnerable to personal crisis than the wider populace, the main reason they end up on the street is not drink or mental difficulties — it is poverty. The United States plans to withdraw the rest of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. In Afghanistan, NATO is training a force of 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers to take over when the last foreign troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.

There are relatively few of this new breed of veteran in the homeless population. According to Neil Donovan, executive director of the U.S. National Coalition of the Homeless, those on the path to homelessness are still at the early stages of that transition. “This is my 33rd year working in homeless services, so I have seen Vietnam veterans, I have seen other veterans, (and) I kind of have a good sense of how long it takes to come back home and spiral down. And it takes a while. It doesn’t happen in a year and it doesn’t happen in two years,” he said. “What tends to happen is, you have a year’s worth of nightmares and then your wife leaves,” he said, “And then you have another year of nightmares, and the Oxycontin or the Percoset that you’re on stops working because it’s a narcotic that will only work for so long, and then the pain becomes so profound that you begin using it beyond the prescribed amount, and then the doctor won’t prescribe it any longer, so you start self-medicating and then you start getting into illegal behavior.”

At this point, up to three years down the road, the soon to be homeless veteran slides below the poverty line and the risk of homelessness becomes acute. “So we are quite far out from seeing the true wave of people who will become homeless. And there are going to be a lot of people who are homeless, and the people who are homeless are going to be people who are physically handicapped as well as emotionally handicapped,” Donovan added. There are other dangers in the current economy for the newest crop of veterans. Many Western countries are cutting spending as they wrestle with huge deficits, and that could threaten funding for vital programs just at the point the newest crop needs help. Canada recently proposed C$226 million in budget cuts from Veterans Affairs, but a government spokesman told Vancouver street magazine Megaphone that these were aimed at improving efficiency rather than lowering benefits. NDP MP Peter Stoffer said he was concerned about the impact on health care and services. “As the official Opposition critic for Veterans Affairs, I have many examples of how the system of caring for our veterans is broken,” he wrote in a blog on the Canadian Veterans Advocacy website. “Veterans’ homelessness is also on the rise and more veterans are using food banks.” Funding at the U.S. VA has actually risen after a 2009 pledge by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama to end veteran homelessness by 2015. But Angell agrees it is hard to predict what will happen in future. “It’s hard to imagine that people wouldn’t be behind the employment of veterans,” she said. “And really that’s not just a government issue–that’s the American people’s issue. It’s not up to government to hire every single vet- eran. It’s really up to the private sector to join forces with that and make those employment opportunities available.” Even though there are relatively few young veterans in the homeless population, there are already signs of potential trouble.

Jordan Moore, 20, went to Afghanistan with Britain’s Coldstream Guards in 2008 when he was just 17 years old. He left military service after two and a half years and found himself unable to readjust to life in Sunderland, located in the Northeast of England. “When I came home, I kind of lost my friends,” he said. “I had to keep things to myself. Even now, people don’t know the things I did, the things that went on (in Afghanistan). They don’t really ask about it.” He slid into substance abuse before seeking help from UK charity Norcare, which set up a veterans’ center in Newcastle last year. “When I was at my worst, I was either staying in and drinking or taking drugs on my own, or when I went into town, I’d always seem to want to get into a fight,” Moore said. “It wasn’t until Christmas, after I completely snapped in front of my mum, that I realized I had a problem.” Determining a global count of veterans on the street is difficult, in part because of varying official definitions of what constitutes homelessness. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 144,842 American veterans, or 11.5 per- cent of homeless adults, spent at least one night in emergency or transitional housing between October 2009 and September 2010, down 3 percent from the year before. A second measure, the number of homeless veterans on a single night, rose 1 percent. For its part, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in the United States estimated that while only 8 percent of the general populace are veterans, those who served in the military account for nearly one-fifth of the adult homeless population. Official counts are likely to be low, since they leave out veterans who never register at a homeless facility — those jumping from one friend’s house to the next, or sleeping in cars, in the woods or on the streets. It also leaves out those who don’t admit to being veterans. In Britain, one study
showed 3 percent of those found sleeping on the streets in London between April 2009 and March 2010 had served in the military. Experts cite a host of reasons why veterans may be at risk of homelessness. They may have trouble adjusting to the chaotic rhythm of “normal” life after the comforting rigor of military routine. They may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or have difficulty translating work in the service into marketable job skills, or suffer from the loss of camaraderie, or suffer from a dependence on alcohol or drugs or from serious physical injury. Veterans can also contend with all the issues that can cause homelessness in the mainstream of society — lack of affordable housing, jobs that don’t pay a living wage, red tape that makes social services impossible to navigate and physical or mental disabilities. The new crop of veterans also face a greater likelihood of serious physical dis- ability than those of the past, according to Alison Hickey, Undersecretary for Benefits at the U.S. VA. “Those claims that are coming in are far more complex than we have experienced in past conflicts, largely for a good news reason,” Hickey said. “Our veterans are … 10 times more likely to survive a major injury or illness and that’s a good thing, but that means that we are going to be taking care of many more people for some very serious injuries for a long time.” Donovan said there is an increased risk of substance abuse in U.S. veterans who suffer debilitating injuries because doctors often prescribe potentially addictive painkillers. John Alford, 57, turned to the bottle after serving in Northern Ireland. Blinded in one eye by a nail bomb during his service with the First Gloucestershire Regiment, he saw two colleagues shot by snipers.

“You can never forget something like that,” he said. “After I left the army, I found it difficult to fit in and settle anywhere, and drink becomes some- thing you suppress it all with. I lost a lot through it. I’ve been married four times.” Alford has left drink behind and is establishing a new life, assisted by the Forces Self Build Scheme in Bristol, a program that is helping ex-service personnel build their own housing. Such grassroots initiatives, national veterans’ charities and government agencies have launched scores of programs in recent years to help military personnel with everything from housing to job training and advice. Many also connect veterans with other veterans to give them a sense of community and shared experience. Angell says many of the staff at the VA’s 300 centers across the United States are former combat veterans who under- stand the trauma of life under fire. Bryan Green, 64, a former staff sergeant in the UK’s Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, found it hard to adapt to civilian life after a quarter century in the military and suffered a breakdown three years ago. He finds the sense of belonging at Norcare’s veterans center invaluable. “It takes a long time to re-adjust. Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don’t have a clue. And you’re not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone. A door has been shut in your life,” Green said. “When I can talk about these things with Jordan (Moore) and these guys, people who have been through the same things, it means a lot.” On Canada’s west coast, Phil Quesnelle, recently released from the Canadian Forces on disability after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, sits on the board of the South Mid Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society, which founded a transitional residence devoted to ex-service personnel struggling to find shelter. He also acts as a peer counselor, offering others the benefit of his experience. “It’s not a switch you can turn on or off,” Quesnelle said. “But people expect you to go back to normal over the span of that 10-hour flight back to Canada. It doesn’t work that way and people just don’t under- stand it.” Conscious of the disproportionate numbers of ex-service personnel in the ranks of the U.S. unemployed, the VA hired 400 formerly homeless veterans to act as peer counselors for those trying to find work. They offer advice on resumes, talk through interviews and answer telephones to provide support through the sometimes stressful early days on a new job. The VA also set up a new HR office that helps jobseekers translate their work in the military into civilian job skills, along with guidance on applications. “We’re being very pro- active, because honestly since poverty is the definer of the pathway to homeless- ness, if at least we can drop that unemployment rate for our newest veterans coming back, that should be a big prevention strategy,” said the VA’s Angell. The VA also negotiates with lenders to help veterans who can’t afford rent, and says its efforts kept 9 percent more veterans in their homes last year com- pared to prior years. “It can be quite expensive to try to get someone who has been chronically homeless for many years off the street and stabilized – com- pared to what it might take to prevent,” Angell said. “If you can help someone with two months’ rent, compared to what it would cost in 10 years to help this person get off the street and deal with other health issues.” Hugh Milroy, who served in the first Gulf War and is now CEO of UK charity Veterans Aid believes veterans are actually “citizens- plus” in Britain, with the government as well as 3,000 charities offering sup- port. He worries that too much focus on the homelessness issue may brand veterans as victims. He agrees the situ- ation is tougher in the United States, in part because of the absence of universal health care and a strong social safety net.

Denmark’s support for its returnees is not as pronounced as in some other countries, according to street newspaper Hus Forbi. The Ministry of Defense in Denmark puts returning soldiers through a three-month acclimatization program. Six months after their return, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire. One-third of veterans never reply. Donovan of the National Coalition for the Homeless in the United States says the increases in funding under the Obama administration will inevitably reduce the number of veterans on the streets, but he worries Congress may turn its attention elsewhere once the United States has withdrawn from Iraq. “We’re a country suffering from ADD and when we aren’t at war we’re going to stop thinking about veterans and we’re going to think about something else,” he said. The key, he says, is ensuring that enough permanent housing is built via programs like the VA’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, where veterans get vouchers for housing organized by local housing authorities in the United States. “It reminds me of antibiotics,” Donovan said. “If you give somebody two doses the first day and another dose and another dose and all of a sudden they start feeling better and you don’t give them the last three days, what happens? The per- son’s going to get sick again, and when it comes back, it’s going to be medically resistant, it’s going to be treatment- resistant. That’s what happens with these populations. You don’t solve the problem. You pour tons of money into it, you pay attention to it, but you don’t solve the problem and it becomes socially resistant.” (*Additional reporting by Yvonne Robertson / Megaphone Canada, Adam Forrest / The Big Issue UK, Simon Ankjærgaard / Hus Forbi and Danielle Batist / Street News Service)

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