By Richard Hooks Wayman
In the last point-in-time (PIT) count of homeless persons in October 2009, Wilder Research Center surveyed 669 homeless veterans in Minnesota in one day. A PIT study conducted earlier that year by HUD found over 75,600 veterans experiencing homelessness across the country.
America is finally realizing that the trauma of war and risks of military service impact people differently, but they can exacerbate disabling conditions leading to economic instability and homelessness. Panic disorder, traumatic brain injuries, clinical depression, PTSD, and chemical dependency can all contribute to long-term homelessness for veterans returning from war and conflicts abroad.
Unfortunately—but predictably—we are starting to see the next wave of homelessness for younger veterans. Shelters are already starting to note the presence of homeless veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2007 to 2009, articles in the New York Times, USA Today, and CNN documented a surprising number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who were becoming homeless upon their return from service. Years later, the warnings in these articles still ring true, shedding light on a lingering dilemma.
For many veterans with disabilities–including mental health disabilities and alcohol or chemical addictions–their exit from life in overcrowded shelters or on the streets requires the ability to access supportive housing. Supportive housing offers a meaningful solution to the current plight of many homeless veterans stuck in crisis shelters each night.
How Support Changes Lives (Paul’s Story)
Supportive housing offers not only affordability, but also professional and personal support to assist veterans in addressing health, income, and personal matters. Permanent supportive housing offers veterans lasting support instead of short-term help or transitional programs. I wanted to share just one story of the many veterans served each year by Hearth Connection and our community-based partners, part of a supportive housing network in Minnesota:
Paul started drinking before his teenage years. He enlisted in the military and served in Vietnam, where he found drugs as a means to cope. When Paul returned home to the U.S. after his service, his life spiraled out of control under the influence of addiction.
Paul spent years living in different places around the country; he lost homes, jobs, and as it felt like for Paul, the respect of his family. He participated in at least 25 different programs and spent time in jail. He slept in abandoned buildings.
After years of homelessness, Paul gained an apartment of his own through Hearth Connection’s supportive housing program. He worked to re-establish stability in his life – rebuilding relationships with his kids and family, maintaining sobriety, finding work, improving his credit.
At the time Paul shared his past with us, he had been in stable housing for over three years and had kept the same job for over two years. The building where he lives is safe, offers activities, and has people available to talk when he has a problem. He has achieved five years of sobriety.
Paul now shares his story of recovery with others. He said, “I have the opportunity to live, and to learn from my mistakes. I want to share my story so other people can learn from my mistakes too.” Paul’s progress and determination is remarkable. As he puts it, “I have turned my life around. I can tell you, this would not have been possible without supportive housing.”
Making Housing for Veterans a Federal Priority
In 2010, President Obama and the Veteran’s Administration stated their goal to end homelessness among U.S. veterans within five years. This will require the infusion of significant financial investment in affordable housing, supportive services, and homeless prevention assistance. The federal government has already stepped up funding to key programs servings veterans who lack stable housing:
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) Program offers permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans who utilize supportive services to live independently. HUD has allocated over 20,000 “Housing Choice” Section 8 vouchers to Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) throughout the country for eligible homeless veterans.
- The Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program is offered annually by the Veteran’s Administration to fund community-based agencies providing transitional housing or service centers for homeless veterans.
Additionally, Hearth Connection secures funding from HUD’s Supportive Housing Program, the Minnesota Housing Trust Fund (Minnesota Housing) and the Minnesota Long-Term Homelessness Supportive Services Fund (Department of Human Services) to expand supportive housing services for homeless veterans. These homeless assistance programs are not targeted specifically for veterans, however, and the latter state programs have been the targets of cuts in recent state budget proposals.
Hearth Connection remains committed to serving veterans who are experiencing long histories of homelessness, and we look forward to seeing our federal government realize its goals of ending veteran homelessness in the next five years. We should feel a sense of duty and urgency in addressing this social crisis.
Note: Hearth Connection’s participants enter the program through referral only. If someone is experiencing homelessness and needs help, please contact a social service program or shelter in your area. Residents of Minnesota can also reach a confidential community helpline by dialing 211 or 1-800-543-7709. More information for veterans and their families is available by visiting SAMHSA, VA, and MACV’s websites.
Names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of participants.