WASHINGTON -- January 12 -- Combat veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terror who need help -- from mental health programs to housing, employment training and job placement assistance -- are beginning to trickle into the nation's community-based homeless veteran service provider organizations. Already stressed by an increasing need for assistance by post-Vietnam era veterans and strained budgets, homeless service providers are deeply concerned about the inevitable rising tide of combat veterans who will soon be requesting their support.
A recent survey conducted by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) in Washington, D.C., shows combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are, indeed, beginning to request help from homeless veteran service providers. The survey was in response to a growing number of inquiries by media and government officials involved in veterans and budgetary affairs.
There currently is no reliable, scientific data available to accurately calculate how America's wartime mobilization is going to impact the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and community homeless service providers -- it is too early. But there are enough studies, historical data and present-day indicators to conclude the nation is woefully unprepared for the increased demand for homeless veteran services the "War on Terror" will generate.
Two years after the beginning of the war in Iraq, there are nearly 150,000 American men and women serving in the war zone, and another 16,000 serving in Afghanistan. Rotations of troops returning home from Iraq are now a common occurrence. Military analysts and government sources say the deployments and repatriation of combat veterans is unlike anything the nation has experienced since the end of the Vietnam War. They also say the deployments are likely to continue for several years.
The signs of an impending crisis are clearly seen in the VA's own numbers. Under considerable pressure to stretch dollars, the VA estimates it can provide assistance to about 100,000 homeless veterans each year, only 20 percent of the more than 500,000 who will need supportive services. Hundreds of community-based organizations nationwide struggle to provide assistance to as many of the other 80 percent as possible, but the need far exceeds available resources.
According to the most reliable federal data on homelessness, the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, 23 percent of all homeless people in America -- and 33 percent of all homeless men -- are veterans.
In the early stages of receiving combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA is already reporting that 20 percent of those casualties need treatment for mental health problems. That is consistent with studies conducted by VA and other agencies that conclude anywhere from 15 to more than 35 percent of combat veterans will experience some clinical degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or other psychosocial problems.
However, studies also show most combat veterans do not seek help for mental and emotional problems for several years after their homecoming - the average was 12 years for Vietnam veterans. The percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already receiving mental health treatment and other assistance, at the very least, promises a significant and prolonged increase in demand for supportive services long after the conflicts draw to a close.
"You see all those cars with yellow ribbons saying 'Support Our Troops," says Linda Boone, Executive Director of NCHV, the only national organization wholly dedicated to helping America's homeless veterans. "What you don't see are signs saying 'Support Our Veterans.' But when those men and women take off their uniforms, that's when they need support the most."
Boone says combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to request assistance earlier than in previous conflicts, and possibly in greater numbers, for several reasons. The number of community-based homeless veteran service providers and outreach programs has increased in the last 15 years. The placement of homeless service coordinators at all VA medical centers and Veterans Benefits Administration offices has also increased access to assistance for veterans who are experiencing homelessness or dealing with problems that place them at risk of becoming homeless.
The subject of providing adequate funding for additional supportive services to help a new generation of wartime veterans has become a significant battleground as the administration maneuvers to limit federal spending on domestic assistance initiatives across the board -- including funds for homeless programs and the Veterans Health Administration, the principal provider of grants to support community-based homeless veteran programs.
NCHV continues to be at the center of the fray on behalf of homeless veterans, and has developed a comprehensive legislative agenda for the 109th Congress that focuses on homelessness prevention strategies and adequate funding levels for community- based veteran service providers. It calls on the Department of Defense to educate separating servicemembers about the difficulties they will encounter when they leave the military, and where to find help when they need it. It details the respective contributions of several federal agencies that share the responsibility of ending homelessness among veterans, including the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Defense and Health and Human Services. The agenda is posted on the organization's website at http://www.nchv.org.
"We don't know what the ultimate cost of helping veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will be, how many will need help," Boone says. "But we do know there's a steady stream of wounded veterans coming home who don't even know they're casualties."
NCHV Homeless Veteran Service Provider Survey
19 Community-based Organizations Responded.
67 Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were served in 2004.
Regular enlisted: 73 percent
Reserves/Guard: 27 percent
26-35: 48 percent
18-25: 36 percent
36-50: 10 percent
Other: 6 percent
Caucasian: 59 percent
African American: 28 percent
Asian American: 6 percent
Hispanic: 4 percent
American Indian: 1 percent
VETERAN HEALTH ISSUES
No health issues: 41 percent
Mental health: 19 percent
Dual diagnosis (Mental health & substance abuse): 15 percent
Physical injury: 12 percent
Substance abuse: 7 percent
Unemployed: 61 percent
Full time: 33 percent
Part time: 3 percent
Active duty: 1 percent
Student: 1 percent
Permanent: 40 percent
Homeless (streets/car): 24 percent
Transitional Housing: 24 percent
Emergency Shelter: 10 percent