My old boss used to jokingly say “Everyone thinks their clients are special, well ours actually are.”
He was talking about veterans; my boss was a Vietnam veteran himself. Having been a direct service provider for homeless veterans, I can attest that they are a special population indeed – with a host of unique characteristics and barriers that can inhibit the housing and recovery process.
The first hurdle is walking in the door. Many veterans simply won’t ask for help, even when they desperately need it. The culture of self-reliance and determination, coupled with the warrior mentality that served them so well in the military, does not always translate well to civilian life. To this day, baby boomer children are bringing their World War Two and Korean War veteran fathers into agencies seeking assistance. The spouses of Vietnam veterans are bringing their reluctant partners in for help, decades after their service. Understanding this perspective is key to helping veterans help themselves. They want a hand up, not a hand out. They want to work, be productive, and continue to serve the country they love.
Then there are the medical issues. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is highly prevalent among combat veterans and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI’s) are the “signature” wound of the current conflicts. Due to advances in medical technology, there are many veterans who have survived wounds that would have been deadly a generation ago. This leaves us with a population of wounded warriors that have serious physical limitations to cope with for the rest of their life. Moreover, there are psychological factors that may impede the road to health and housing. For example, veterans represent a small portion (9 percent) of our population and their experiences are so outside the ordinary experience of civilian life. Combat veterans in particular have trouble reintegrating after conflict. These experiences tend to set veterans apart from the rest of society. This isolation that ensues may contribute to psychological and potentially damaging problems.
And then the search starts. Until recently, finding a place for a homeless veteran to stay was a fairly difficult process. The choices were emergency shelter, transitional housing program (very high demand), motel vouchers (few and far between), treatment facility (short term), or some other such halfway intervention.
In the past a veteran had to bounce around from program to program, shelter to shelter to find a place to sleep. If the veteran couldn’t work and had limited or no income, he or she was just out of luck. Those who could work struggled, and still do, to find affordable housing. Bad credit, evictions, and other housing barriers only aggravate matters.
Luckily, in recent years, more options have become available. With the re-authorization of HUD-VASH, service providers can end homelessness for some chronically homeless veterans. With the SSVF grants coming on board there are now opportunities for newly homeless and at risk veterans to avoid the staggering inefficiency of the shelter system. Shelters will always have their place, but now they can be used in the most efficient way – as a brief, intermediary band-aid until providers can find a housing-based solution for the veteran.
As Steve pointed out yesterday, our national community has committed to honoring the service of veterans by ensuring that no servicemember ends up facing life on the street. And we’ve made strides to move towards a country with veteran homelessness.
But the fight is far from over. Unemployment among veterans is almost twice as high as unemployment among non-veterans. Veterans are still overrepresented in the homeless population. Veterans still face an array of challenges – environmental, psychological, medical – that will infringe upon their ability to become reintegrated into society and safely re-housed.
Working with veterans is a fine balance of understanding and respect. But it’s the very least we can do in honor of the brave men and women who have so valiantly served our country.