LOS ANGELES - The U.S. Vets Westside Residence Hall is a hulking eight-story structure a few blocks from Los Angeles International Airport. It's the largest transitional housing and employment centre for homeless veterans in the country, hosting 700 veterans annually.
Michael Hall is one of its residents. The 31-year-old Army staff sergeant enlisted shortly after high school and served as a heavy equipment mechanic and technical weapons specialist in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Afghanistan before being severely injured in Iraq in 2003.
"I was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade," Hall told IPS as he limped into a recreation room on the building's ground floor. "I suffer from compression of the spine. I used to be six foot four. Now I'm six two and a half."
"I got knocked through a wall," he added, almost as an afterthought.
The federal government's Veterans Administration considers Hall to be 100 percent disabled. He has difficulty walking, dragging his feet with each step he takes. He also suffers from mental problems -- bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder -- conditions he didn't have before he went to Iraq.
Hall said his problems really started when he got back to the United States and started using methamphetamines to dull the pain.
"I knew a lot of people who were killed in Iraq," he said, "so the pain of losing loved ones on the battlefield, the pain of not being there for my children, of not knowing how to live in this civilian society after so many years in the military -- I stuffed these things down deep inside because I considered myself a hard-core guy. But after the effects of the methamphetamine went away, I still felt the same. No matter how much I could do or how much I could smoke the results were the same. It was the insanity of it all."
Hall has four children, ages seven, four, two, and one. But his behaviour since being released from the military has kept him away from them. In addition to using drugs, he started dealing as well. Since leaving the military in 2003, he has served time in federal prison in Oklahoma for felony home invasion and has had numerous other run-ins with the law. Within three years, he hit rock bottom -- one of 27,000 homeless vets on the streets of Los Angeles.
Dwight Radcliff is chief operating officer of U.S. Vets, a public-private partnership founded in 1993 to serve homeless veterans. He told IPS his organisation is increasingly coming into contact with relatively young homeless veterans involved in custody disputes over their children.
"It's a sign of the times," he said. "It's a lot freer now than even in the 1970s. So it's not surprising to see a veteran who is 23 years old who has children, who cannot get along with the custodial parent who needs support and help to navigate that system."
Radcliff added that the presence of those children can also be a motivator to get the veteran off the streets and clean from drugs. For example, U.S. Vets helped former Staff Sergeant Michael Hall win custody of his children after he got off methamphetamine. The children are currently living with Hall's parents until he finds a permanent place to live.
"These are guys who are pretty much going straight from deployment to the streets," added Rachel Feldstein, associate director of New Directions, a residential care centre for homeless veterans inside the VA complex in West Los Angeles. She says veterans of the Iraq war are becoming homeless much more quickly than Vietnam vets.
While about half of the estimated 400,000 homeless veterans served during the Vietnam years, Feldstein said most did not usually become homeless until nine to 12 years after their discharge.
Already, she said, Iraq war vets are living on the streets of Los Angeles, getting seriously addicted to drugs and falling into criminal behaviour, she said.
Firm estimates of the number of homeless Iraq war veterans are hard to come by. In June 2005, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported the number of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) veterans seeking assistance from community-based homeless services providers had exceeded 400.
The group Veterans for America, formerly the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, estimates that 10,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are now living on the street.
Sixteen Iraq war veterans have entered residential drug rehab at New Directions over the last four years. Most have been referred to the programme as an alternative sentence after being convicted of a crime.
"What's unique about the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is that they're not able to integrate with their family," Feldstein said. "They've seen horrible things. They've been in horrible places and their family can't relate. And so you become homeless in the last place you lived."
Activists concerned about increases in the number of homeless veterans argue for greater federal investment in affordable housing and social services. Of particular concern is the wait for mental health care, which can run as long as six months.
A recent study by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that by the time the Iraq and Afghanistan wars end, there will be at least two and a half million vets. Because of that, the Harvard study concluded, Congress will have to double the VA's budget simply to avoid cutting services.
© 2007 Inter Press Service