On any night, 107,000 veterans are homeless. Many more lose their homes for short periods of time. At least one-fifth of all homeless people were in the military at one time, and nearly half of those during the Vietnam War. Two-thirds of homeless vets served for 3 years or more, and one-third served in a war zone.
The path to homelessness
People lose their homes for a lot of reasons, but vets have their own special problems that may lead to homelessness. Some came out of the service with nowhere to go. Others could not adjust back into civilian life. They may have given up apartments when they went into the service and now they can’t find anything they can afford. Some lost their homes in divorce. Veterans Affairs (VA) believes most homeless vets have serious health problems, such as substance abuse, that gets in the way of their ability to get back on track.
“What has happened to so many of our vets is a tragedy,” says William Shryer, a vet who helps others deal with emotional problems.
Shryer says many people have trouble adjusting to the military when they first go in. Once they get used to it, they find buddies they can depend on for support. When they get out, those buddies probably disappear and, suddenly, they are alone for the first time since before they went into service.
It’s not easy switching from civilian to military, then military to civilian life. When you’re in the service, everything is provided for you. You know the routine. You know who you can count on. Once you’re out, you are on your own.
Your old friends may be gone. Your job may not be there waiting for you. People move from place to place just to keep working. A lot can happen in a year or two in the life of a family, set of friends or community.
More than half of those who see combat come home with problems, especially posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can make it hard for a person to sleep or hold down a job. Without help, PTSD can go on for years and damage a vet’s life.
According to Shryer, it’s not unusual for people in the service to use drugs or alcohol to handle the stress of war. When they come home, some bring their addictions with them, and need help but can’t find it.
The VA helps people once they are out of the service. You might want help finding and figuring out how to sign up for the services they offer.
Easy to lose hope
One problem often leads to another, and then another. Before they know it, some vets have fallen into hopelessness, as well as homelessness.
“Imagine how awful it is to come home and find your job is gone, your wife wants a separation, you have an injury, you drank too much while you were gone and you can’t find a place in society where you’re needed anymore,” says LeslieBeth Wish, who with her husband, co-founded a program to help the families of special operations forces.
When a vet comes home with a collection of challenges, it doesn’t take long for despair to set in. If it’s you and you’re lucky, you’ll find the support you need to get you back on track. If you can’t find help, you may sink deeper into a hole you can’t get out of on your own. Suicide might look like a good way out.
If that’s where you are, and you are thinking about ending your life, there are people willing and able to help you.
Ike Bingham, a retired Navy vet in Norfolk, Va., is one of them. Since he left the Navy 13 years ago, Bingham has worked to help homeless vets put their lives back together.
If you come back badly injured, or you wife or husband has left you, you can start to believe there’s no tomorrow, Bingham says. Then, if you reach out for help and don’t get what you need, you stop trying.
Getting what you need
If you’re at that point, here are things to think about:
- You are not alone. There are thousands of people who drifted from their old lives, then gave up trying to find them. But, there are many more who reached the same point where you are now, then turned around and got back on track. You can do it, too.
- You have more strength than you give yourself credit for. When you were in service, you had to keep going, no matter what. You were trained to be strong, brave, organized and patient. You’ve proven you can do all of those things. Now, you need to do them for yourself.
- People appreciate your service, even if they don’t tell you.
- No matter what your role was in the service, it made you special. You did your part to help your unit succeed. That, in turn, helped the whole country. Be proud of what you did, and know that others are proud of you.
- You’re more important to others than you realize. If you volunteered, you must have done that because you thought this country was worth giving up a year of your life—or even giving up your life—to save. Since you’re part of this country, you’re worth saving, too. You’ve earned it!
- Somewhere, there’s a buddy waiting to help you. Find someone who can work with you to help you find your way back. They are out there you just have to find them. The two of you can work like a team, like you did in the military, until you’re able to take over on your own.
There is hope, says Wish, because plans are being made to add to veteran’s benefits, and there are many more people trained and available to help vets deal with PTSD and other emotional problems.
There are several programs that might be perfect for a homeless vet who has run out of ideas. Here are 3:
- Stand Down: a free, multilevel outreach program designed for homeless vets with multiple issues. Stand Down events are held in almost 200 cities across the country every year. They offer free medical and dental care, showers, food, haircuts, guidance in finding jobs and housing and links to treatment programs or other help you might need. See http://www.standown.org.
- Give an Hour: a group of counselors, social workers and others who are willing to give 1 hour of services a week, free, to vets who need their help. Contact your local VA, or visit http://www.giveanhour.org to find a list of volunteers in your area.
- National Coalition for Homeless Veterans: at http://www.nchv.org, offers advice and links to services.
Where to find help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline/VA Suicide Hotline
National Call Center for Homeless Veterans
United Way Information and Referral Search
Veterans Crisis Line
Overview of Homeless Veterans Benefits and Programs
Wounded Warriors National Resource Directory
VA Caregiver Support