Butler VA Health Care System
Soldiers Coming Home Are At Risk For Homelessness
September 2, 2010
(BUTLER, Pa.) – As our armed forces return home from Iraq, Americans expect to see these Soldiers greeted with tearful hugs of jubilation. It is hard to imagine these returning service members will be at risk for homelessness. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki has made Veteran homelessness a priority of his administration and committed the VA to end Veteran homelessness in five years. Roughly 1 in 5 homeless adults are Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are finding themselves categorized as homeless faster than Veterans of previous wars.
According to a U.S. Interagency Council on the Homeless (USICH) report, 23 percent of the homeless in America are Veterans. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that “107,000 Veterans are homeless on any given night.”
While not as visible as the sign holders on heating grates in downtown New York and Chicago; homeless Veterans in Western Pennsylvania are out there and need help. They make do with their surroundings by creating “shanty towns” in the woods or relying on the kindness of others.
“You can see the homeless in downtown Pittsburgh. The rural homeless are hidden and invisible,” said Janine Kennedy, Director of Butler County’s Community Action and Development. “If you look, there is evidence of shanty towns in Butler.”
“We are seeing an increase in returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, especially women,” said Dan Slack, Homeless Coordinator for VA Butler Healthcare. “This year I have worked with about ten women veterans. That’s more than I have dealt with over the past ten years combined.”
With an increasing number of Veterans leaving the military and current economic conditions, the homeless problem is getting worse. There are not enough local resources to support the requests for assistance.
A 2009 USICH study concluded more than two-thirds of all shelters were located in larger cities. That leaves fewer resources for rural America that often has an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.
“A lot of our Veteran Homeless are either living in the woods away from the population,” said Slack, “or they are ‘couch-hopping.’”
Couch-hopping (sleeping as a temporary guest from home-to-home) provides temporary relief for the evening, but it is only a short reprieve from the reality that Veterans still are not independently living.
“The reality is,” said Slack, “couch hoppers wear out their welcome fast, and exhaust their network of friends just as quickly.” Eventually, fewer options remain until the Veterans start seeking to create their own outdoor shelters.
According to Mr. Slack, Veteran homelessness is mostly the result of three major factors: mental health, finances and substance abuse. “Usually the Veterans I am dealing with are struggling with all three,” said Slack. “If you are fighting demons in your head the rest of life can be overwhelming.”
One factor leading to the Veteran homeless problem is the strain of military service. The Department of Veteran Affairs is seeing high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual trauma (MST). The increase may also be associated with repeated deployments. According to the USICH, so many tours into combat may “contribute to issues with social relationships, controlling temper or create barriers to employment and stable relationships … a majority of homeless Veterans are single; social isolation is associated with higher risks of homelessness.”
The strain of military service is not the only cause for Veteran homelessness though. Other factors may include a shortage of affordable housing, earning a livable income, limited access to health care, and a lack of support networks. All of these issues are made more difficult by the disassociation created by multiple deployments overseas. Recent VA data indicates male Veterans are 1.3 times more likely to become homeless than non-Veterans; and female veterans are 3.6 times more likely.
“There are more Veterans showing up in my office who don’t have drug issues, mental issues or military trauma,” said Slack. “They are just hit hard by the economy and they don’t have any resources. Some of these Veterans are even working but just can’t cover the bills.”
VA Butler Healthcare coordinates and supports various local, state and federal organizations to help Veterans return to independent living. There are Veteran-specific HUD programs, transitional living facilities, and vocational retraining opportunities. The biggest challenge is getting the Veterans to the VA.
“We want to see an end to homelessness,” said Slack. “The hard part is getting them to accept our help, but we are making progress.”
VA Butler Healthcare is the provider of choice for over 17,000 veterans throughout Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Lawrence and Mercer counties; and parts of Ohio. With over 600 employees, VA Butler Healthcare provides primary care, specialty care, mental health and social supports services to our nation’s veterans. For information about VA Butler Healthcare programs and services, log on to http://www.butler.va.gov. Media queries and requests should be directed to David Virag at (724)-285-2576 or David.Virag@va.gov.