Half a Million U.S. Veterans Homeless in 2006
Yahoo News/OneWorld US
Aaron Glantz
November 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Nov 9 (OneWorld) - As Americans prepare to honor their military veterans with parades and patriotism this weekend, a new study shows that 494,500 U.S. war vets lived homeless on the street for at least part of last year.

Close to 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The study, by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, found that about half of homeless vets are Vietnam veterans and at least 1,500 are newly returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Among them is 23-year-old Jason Kelley. Kelley grew up in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, a small town of just 3,700 in the state's great Northwoods near the Canadian border. A strong man with a sharp face, he spent a year in the army guarding convoys on their 14-hour drive between Kuwait and Camp Anaconda in Balad, north of Baghdad. Kelley's convoys regularly came under attack and after a few months in Iraq he had a mental breakdown.

Medically evacuated back to the United States because of severe post traumatic stress disorder, Kelley returned to Tomahawk but didn't fit in. "I was bored," he deadpanned, in a recent conversation with OneWorld. "There's not much to do there."

Three months later, Kelley moved to Los Angeles. Almost immediately, he ended up on the streets.

"I got stuck in a little predicament where I couldn't get a job because I didn't have an apartment and I couldn't get an apartment because I didn't have a job," he said. "The money I saved up in Iraq ran down and I was living on the street."

After just a few weeks on the street, Kelley brought himself into a residence hall run by U.S. Vets, the largest provider of services for homeless veterans in the country.

Such services are not readily accessible to most veterans, however. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the U.S. government provides only 15,000 shelter beds for homeless vets nationwide. Community-based non-profits provide another 8,000 beds. Collectively, the two systems meet only about 10 percent of the need.

An even bigger problem, said John Driscoll of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, is that after finding space in a shelter and stabilizing themselves, many vets still can't afford permanent housing.

"The VA programs go a long way in developing transitional assistance programs," he said. "The problem is that most of these programs only help the veteran for up to two years. Most veterans who successfully complete that program are not able to afford fair market rents in virtually any community in the country. Unless there are rental supports, that veteran is still at risk of being homeless after he gets out of that program."

Pentagon statistics show American soldiers are disproportionately recruited from poor, inner city, and rural areas. Many join the military primarily to get out of that environment.

"What typically happens to young adults who go into the military at 17 or 18 [is that] when they return home, the same kind of economic conditions that forced them towards the military still exist or have gotten worse," said Ricky Singh of Black Veterans for Social Justice.

Singh appears in the documentary film, "When I Came Home," which tells the story of Iraq war veteran Herold Noel, who had to live out of his jeep when he returned to New York with post traumatic stress disorder. Singh believed veterans should be given special housing dispensation to assist in their transition to civilian life.

"Every person in this country who is incarcerated is given a discharge plan, and part of that discharge plan is a housing plan," Singh said in the film. "It should happen for soldiers too. If a soldier is returning to an unacceptable housing situation, that soldier should have in his hand as part of his discharge a Section 8 (federal housing voucher)."

VA representatives did not return repeated calls for comment on this story.

In September, former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson wrote to prominent senators warning that President Bush would veto key spending bills if Congress increased funding for veterans beyond the relatively modest budget Bush has suggested. The Senate ignored the warning, passing a larger VA budget by a vote of 92-1.

Vets looking for a place to turn can call the National Veterans Foundation's crisis hotline at 888-777-4443.

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