Homeless Veterans

This piece first aired in July, 2009, as part of the show, “Up in the Air.”

Listen here.

    HOST: Over half of America’s estimated 300,000 homeless veterans are from the Vietnam Era. But a combination of factors, including the economy, high levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, and a backlog of 1 million unprocessed claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, means an increasing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding themselves homeless. Caitlin Jennings has the story.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: Ethan Kreutzer joined the Army in 2002, when he was 17 years old.

    ETHAN KREUTZER: I was more or less going nowhere I suppose, even though I was so young. I – I was really panicked as to what I was going to do once I turned 18. It seemed like a good career opportunity at the time. At least a good entry-level career.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: After training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he was sent to Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He worked providing security for humanitarian aid operations.

    After 5 months Kreutzer suffered a mental breakdown and was honorably discharged. But transitioning back to civilian life was difficult. Originally from Sacramento, California he started wandering up and down the West Coast of the United States.

    Kreutzer was homeless, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and ineligible to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA. In order to qualify for compensation, he needed to have served on active duty for 24 consecutive months.

    ETHAN KREUTZER: I really don’t think the Army – I should say the military – worries too much about – about what happens when people discharge, be it honorably or whatnot, it’s not really their problem. They spent some of us upward of six months to a year teaching us how to become soldiers and our jobs. They had something called ACAP, Army Career and Alumni Program, that was supposed to help us transition. It was a class that they gave us right before we were about to be discharged. It was four hours long. So you can clearly see the discrepancy there.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: In 2005, at age 20, Kreutzer started working and going to college in Sacremento, but stability didn’t last. He started abusing oxycontin, a prescription pain reliever and narcotic. Once again, he found himself homeless, now chemically dependent and still suffering from PTSD.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are about 3,000 homeless veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Kreutzer contacted Swords to Plowshares, a community-based organization in San Francisco that provides support services and advocacy for homeless and low-income veterans. He was accepted into their residential treatment facility.

    Leon Winston, Chief Operating Officer of Swords to Plowshares, says there are many factors that contribute to homelessness among veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    LEON WINSTON: The multiple deployments are a huge factor. But most importantly, PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury, are the signature wounds – hidden wounds – of this conflict. We know from our experience with Vietnam veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that unless it’s adequately addressed, it’s sort of a long, not necessarily slow slide into dysfunction. There’s the very common aspect of self-medication with alcohol or other drugs.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: A Vietnam-era veteran, Winston was homeless himself in the early 1990s. Swords to Plowshares helped him get back on his feet. With Vietnam-veterans there was, on average, a 12 year gap between the end of their military service and the beginning of their homelessness.

    But there is a much faster transition to homelessness being seen among veterans of the current conflicts. Winston says that the state of the economy, along with the difficulty in translating military skills into civilian jobs, is playing a major role.

    Earlier this year, President Obama announced a Zero Tolerance policy for homelessness among the country’s veterans. At the same time, General Shinseki,the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs, proposed a goal of eliminating homelessness among veterans in five years.

    Winston is optimistic.

    LEON WINSTON: And all this bodes well for these vets coming back, because it means putting systems in place that are also prevention. We’re looking at prevention efforts. How can we prevent this human tragedy from happening again? Of course, it’s going to happen for some, but hopefully we won’t have the wholesale neglect that we had for 30 years with the Vietnam vets.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: But Kreutzer is more cautious. He now receives disability from the Department of Veteran Affairs, but he had to depend on a team of lawyers from Swords to Plowshares to fight for his claim.

    ETHAN KREUTZER: You know, I mean, this is great what they’re doing, it’s been a long time coming. However, we are just – we are just the new generation. There are still three more generations of veterans out there that are still suffering right now—Vietnam, post-Vietnam, Gulf War era. It’s a very Byzantine system negotiating the VA. There is no immediate relief ever.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS. Kreutzer’s frustration with the system is echoed by Herold Noel, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Noel was homeless for a year after returning from Iraq.

    HEROLD NOEL: We fought for our country and our country has to fight for us to put us in jobs, so we can show our kids that it is good to join the military, and come back to your community and become somebody. We can’t show our community that we join the military and come out and we end up on the streets and we become drunks and drug addicts and stuff like that. We can’t show our community that. I’m trying to change the view of how people look at veterans when they come home.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: Now, Noel works as an advocate for veterans through an organization called Urban Neighborhoods in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He says that change needs to come from the people who control the money–Congress and the Senate.

    Noel has been lobbying for homeless veterans in Washington, DC since 2004. It’s been a long, slow process, but Congress is finally acknowledging the needs of homeless veterans through the Homes for Heroes Act of 2009. The bill provides veterans with greater access to subsidized housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and also provides funding for community-based organizations.

    Representative Mike Michaud of Maine, who was a cosponsor of the bill, estimates that it will help 130,000 veterans.

    MIKE MICHAUD: It looks at those who are currently homeless and tried to address those needs. It also looks at those who are on the verge of becoming homeless and actually provide resources to prevent them from becoming homeless, but it also focuses on local public housing agencies, to develop a plan to address the needs. We’re not going to solve the problem overnight, but the good news is that this is a positive first step.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: Now the bill awaits a vote in the Senate. As the US withdrawal from Iraq continues and veterans are returning home to a weak economy and high unemployment, the number of veterans at risk for homelessness will continue to grow.

    For War News Radio, I’m Caitlin Jennings.

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