Back from Iraq - and suddenly out on the streets
Social service agencies say the number of homeless vets is rising, in part because of high housing costs and gaps in pay.
Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are now showing up in the nation's homeless shelters.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While the numbers are still small, they're steadily rising, and raising alarms in both the homeless and veterans' communities. The concern is that these returning veterans - some of whom can't find jobs after leaving the military, others of whom are still struggling psychologically with the war - may be just the beginning of an influx of new veterans in need. Currently, there are 150,000 troops in Iraq and 16,000 in Afghanistan. More than 130,000 have already served and returned home.
So far, dozens of them, like Herold Noel, a married father of three, have found themselves sleeping on the streets, on friends' couches, or in their cars within weeks of returning home. Two years ago, Black Veterans for Social Justice (BVSJ) in the borough of Brooklyn, saw only a handful of recent returnees. Now the group is aiding more than 100 Iraq veterans, 30 of whom are homeless.
"It's horrible to put your life on the line and then come back home to nothing, that's what I came home to: nothing. I didn't know where to go or where to turn," says Mr. Noel. "I thought I was alone, but I found out there are a whole lot of other soldiers in the same situation. Now I want people to know what's really going on."
After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of veterans came home to a hostile culture that offered little gratitude and inadequate services, particularly to deal with the stresses of war. As a result, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans still struggle with homelessness and drug addiction.
Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are coming home to a very different America. While the Iraq war remains controversial, there is almost unanimous support for the soldiers overseas. And in the years since Vietnam, more than 250 nonprofit veterans' service organizations have sprouted up, many of them created by people like Peter Cameron, a Vietnam veteran who is determined that what happened to his fellow soldiers will not happen again.
But he and dozens of other veterans' service providers are concerned by the increasing numbers of new veterans ending up on streets and in shelters.
Part of the reason for these new veterans' struggles is that housing costs have skyrocketed at the same time real wages have remained relatively stable, often putting rental prices out of reach. And for many, there is a gap of months, sometimes years, between when military benefits end and veterans benefits begin.
"We are very much committed to helping veterans coming back from this war," says Mr. Cameron, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of California. "But the [Department of Veterans Affairs] already has needs it can't meet and there's a lot of fear out there that programs are going to be cut even further."
Both the Veterans Administration and private veterans service organizations are already stretched, providing services for veterans of previous conflicts. For instance, while an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless at some time during 2004, the VA had the resources to tend to only 100,000 of them.
"You can have all of the yellow ribbons on cars that say 'Support Our Troops' that you want, but it's when they take off the uniform and transition back to civilian life that they need support the most," says Linda Boone, executive director of The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.