May 31, 2012
On Monday, the nation observed Memorial Day, an annual federal holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. I am a Vietnam veteran who luckily survived my tour with both mind and body intact. But on this day of remembrance for the dead, shouldn’t we also remember the veterans living among us in poverty, homelessness, and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that has led to an upswing in suicide rates?
We send our soldiers off to fight in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Yet, once the troops become veterans, too often they are woefully neglected.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, veterans make up less than 8 percent of the total U.S. population, but represent about 16 percent of adults who experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2009. Of the 75,609 homeless veterans counted that night, more than half were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing; the others lived on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not meant for human habitation. Between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009, 136,334 veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or a transitional housing facility.
Female veterans are at greater risk of homelessness than male veterans and are two to three times more likely to be homeless. Rates of homelessness are higher for Hispanic, African American, and Native American veterans than for non-minority veterans, especially among those who are poor. Veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are twice as likely as adults in the general population to be homeless, and the risk of homelessness increases significantly among young veterans who are poor.
In addition, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 89,553 to 467,877 veterans are at risk of homelessness, meaning that they are below the poverty level and pay more than 50 percent of household income for rent.
Homelessness is rising among veterans because of high living costs, the lack of adequate funds, and many are struggling with the effects of PTSD and substance abuse, exacerbated by a lack of adequately-funded support systems.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. military at any time since September 2001 – a group referred to as the Gulf War-era II veterans – was 12.1 percent. The unemployment rate for all veterans was 8.3 percent. As of April 2012, the total unemployment rate in the U.S. was 8.1 percent. Twenty-six percent of Gulf War-era II veterans reported having a service-connected disability in August 2011, compared with about 14 percent for all veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been severely criticized for the diagnoses of wounded veterans with a personality disorder, instead of PTSD, thus denying them disability pay and medical benefits. More than 22,500 soldiers have been suspiciously dismissed with personality disorders, rather than PTSD. By doing so, the military saves money in disability pay and medical care over the lifetimes of veterans. How many homeless veterans, discharged for personality disorders rather than PTSD, would be off the homeless roles if they had disability pay and VA medical care?
In response, VA in 2010 issued new regulations liberalizing the evidentiary standard for veterans claiming service-connected PTSD. The new liberalized regulations may allow the VA finally to reach its stated goal “to provide excellence in patient care, veterans’ benefits and customer satisfaction.”
As a matter of political reality, this administration, Congress, or the courts, have not established a right to housing, not even for a specific subgroup such as veterans. Even if there was such a right, the underlying root of homelessness needs to be addressed, that is, the de-funding of federal affordable housing programs since the early 1980s. The federal government’s housing assistance for veterans has largely been limited to guaranteeing home mortgage loans but, realistically, homeownership is still too expensive for many veterans, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Despite cries of “support our troops,” it is shameful that the U.S. can spend $1.3 trillion and counting in our Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but neglect our veterans at home.
(If you want to understand the reason for this country’s housing mess, I highly recommend the 2010 Update of “Without Housing – Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures” by the Western Regional Advocacy Project. It can be downloaded at its website (www.wraphome.org). The 2010 Update focuses public attention back on the #1 reason for our housing mess: the Federal Government’s divestment in affordable housing programs and deregulation of the housing market. It comes at a critical juncture for housing policy in this country as millions of Americans are homeless and tens of millions more are on the brink of economic collapse. Most importantly, it helps people understand the complex issues fueling the crisis and provides a framework for turning the situation around).