Our Lost Soldiers Wandering America’s Streets

How can we help our more than 100,000 military veterans who have served our nation yet stumble, hopeless and homeless, through it? Here’s a hopeful possibility: If Americans can find an answer to safely sheltering them, and then help them return as active members of society, we may find the solution to our country’s overall pervasive and tragic homeless problem–3.5 million people in any given year (1.35 million of them children).

A group calling itself “The 100,000 Homes Campaign” is one service organization looking for a solution. Its goal is to house 100,000 homeless Americans by July 2013. It reports having currently housed 11, 271 through its nationwide, community-based program.

This month, it also issued a data report: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans in 100,000 Homes Campaign Communities.” Its trained volunteers set out in 47 towns, and interviewed 23,000 homeless individuals. They used a questionnaire, “based on leading medical research by Drs. Jim O’Connell of Harvard University and Stephen Hwang of the University of Toronto,” the study notes. The scientific survey “screens for health and social conditions linked to an increased risk of death among homeless individuals. It also asks for data on age, health status, institutional history (military, hospital, jail, prison), length of homelessness, patterns of shelter use, and previous housing situations.”

Of the 23,000 homeless individuals surveyed, 3,493 were American veterans. To put that in perspective, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, using estimates from the federal Veterans Affairs Department, says, “107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.”

Who are these homeless veterans? Hear first from their National Coalition:

America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.

Roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively.

About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

The 100,000 Homes Campaign’s survey released this month notes, “While the percentage of surveyed veterans who reported having fought in America’s most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was small (1.5%), this group displayed a number of striking qualities. As a group, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were considerably more likely to report suffering from a traumatic brain injury than veterans of other wars. They were also more likely to report having received some form of mental health treatment, though significantly less likely to report having health insurance.”

The study supposed that was due to the federal government’s increased “attentiveness to brain injuries and combat-related mental health symptoms.”

The study also compared percentages in illnesses suffered by surveyed veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those involved in earlier conflicts: Twenty-seven percent of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans reported brain injuries, compared to 19% from earlier engagements. Having received mental health treatment: Iraq/Afghanistan 46%, earlier wars 41%. Serious health condition: 42% to 56%. Substance abuse 57% to 61%. Those having health insurance: 44% to 59%.

The report showed that military veterans experienced homelessness longer than non-veterans: 5.77 years, compared to 3.92 years for homeless non-veterans. “Similarly, 62% of veterans reported having been homeless for two years or more, while 50% of non-veterans said the same. Among those who had been homeless for more than two years, total length of homelessness jumped to 9 years for homeless veterans and 7.3 for homeless non-veterans.”

The 100,000 Homeless campaign sees a connection between getting veterans a home and a subsequent return to better health:

In the last several years, VA has embraced permanent housing as a central plank in its efforts to address homelessness among veterans. There is good reason to suspect that the increasingly broad implementation of this strategy in communities across the country will result in the emergence of a clear correlation between a veteran’s connection to VA benefits and both improved health and reduced length of homelessness.

Still, the survey shows that about half the surveyed homeless veterans haven’t received mental health treatment, and don’t have health insurance. It would seem logical that this nation–that can spend millions designing and operating pilotless drones–could find a positive way to house, treat and insure all our soldiers who have served and are suffering.

Meanwhile, the 100,000 Homeless campaign keeps taking its efforts into local communities, believing that’s where substantive solutions abide. The campaign is overseen by Common Solutions, a national spin-off of the New York City-based not-for-profit Common Ground. Becky Kanis leads the 100,000 Homeless effort. Following years at West Point, she eventually got involved in Times Square and the Street to Home Initiative. The 100,000 Homeless drive lists among its “sponsors, partners and allies” the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Bank of America, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

For more information about the 100,000 Homes Campaign, visit its website: http://100khomes.org/.

To find out more about the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans: http://www.nchv.org/about.cfm.


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