Homeless people tend to be among the most denigrated in American society. Many consider homelessness to be the result of personal failure, a refusal to work and be productive citizens.
By contrast, we tend to think highly of members of the armed forces, celebrate them on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and see public service announcements on television thanking them for their service. Veterans are American heroes who risk their lives for our freedom and prosperity.
On the surface, these seem to be two completely different categories of people. And yet ironically, veterans comprise a large portion of the homeless population. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night approximately 76,000 veterans are homeless and 145,000 rely on housing programs each year. According to data from 2008, nearly 12 percent of all homeless people are veterans. As you can see from the map below (courtesy of the National Alliance to End Homelessness), in many states there are between 35 and 190 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans. The national average is 35 per 10,000 veterans.
According to a survey published recently by a non-profit group called the 100,000 Homes Campaign, while just 9 percent of the total U.S. population, vets were more than 15 percent of the homeless population in their survey. Of those who are homeless, veterans tend to be homeless for longer periods of time on average, nearly 6 years compared with nearly four for non-vets. They also tend to be older on average than non-vets, with more than 21 percent over 60, while just under 10 percent of non-vets over 60. Homeless vets were more likely to also have serious health conditions than non-vets (55 versus 44 percent.)
There are several factors that might help us understand why veterans may be more likely to be homeless than non-vets. For one, many have been out of the civilian job market, sometimes for several years due to the multiple deployments they might have served. The unemployment rate for veterans is slightly higher than the national average: 12.1 percent compared with 9.1 percent overall. As a PBS blog recently noted:
One of the difficulties service members face when transitioning into civilian employment is how to translate their military experience into related, non-military skills. Many pointed to this "language" barrier as one of the reasons veteran unemployment is so high.
Veterans might have to come to terms with injuries and physical challenges that limit their employment opportunities. Many also struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of vets who served in the past decade have or will develop psychological symptoms that make participation in daily activities difficult. PTSD might make relationships with others a challenge and can worsen over time if it is untreated. (Estimates suggest about 30 percent of Vietnam-era vets have struggled with PTSD).
Returning service members not only face difficulties in the job market, but in some cases have also been part of the nation’s foreclosure crisis. Earlier this year, a representative from J.P. Morgan Chase admitted to Congress that Chase had illegally foreclosed on troops’ homes while they served overseas. As part of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act, no one serving on active duty can be sued during their service or for a year afterwards. A class action suit has been filed against CitiMortgage (a subsidiary of CitiGroup) on behalf of service member for the same practice. Bank of America and Morgan Stanley have also settled similar claims.
Here is a video detailing one returning veteran’s experience of coming home to find his house had been foreclosed on and sold:
Readjusting to civilian life after serving can be difficult under any circumstance. Recovering from physical and psychological trauma makes the process all the more challenging. As more and more of our armed forces will be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months and years, we will need to prepare for the possibility of an increasing veteran homeless population.
Last year, 60 Minutes featured the non-profit group Stand Down's efforts, which as you can see in the video below aims to provide readjustment services for struggling veterans. As you will see programs like this can be very effective, but unfortunately do not have the resources to help all in need.
Homelessness is a complicated issue, and the issues that veterans face are just part of understanding one piece of this puzzle. What do you think might help reduce homelessness among returning veterans? Among the population in general?