The "60 Minutes" piece on Sunday about the Veterans Village of San Diego's annual Stand Down event for homeless veterans reported that the number of homeless young veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is already 9,000. It's a staggering number and one that unfortunately is likely to grow substantially as more of our troops come home physically and emotionally damaged and ill-equipped to deal with a well-meaning but still woefully bureaucratic Veterans Administration that is already overwhelmed and backlogged with claims.
Interestingly, a study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) found that while homeless Vietnam veterans first spent, on average, five to 10 years trying to readjust to society, Iraq and Afghanistan vets can end up homeless within 18 months. But let's not forget veterans of past wars. According to the VA, more than than 130,000 veterans are living on the streets on any given night nationwide, and about twice as many are homeless each year.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says his goal is to end homelessness among all veterans, telling the Washington Post, "No one who has served this nation as veterans should ever be living on the streets." It's a noble effort, and I believe Shinseki, himself a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in action, is sincerely committed to trying. But is it realistic? No, given the fact that not only do we have a growing population of homeless from the current wars, including a higher percentage than ever of women, we still have tens of thousands of homeless from past wars, and they are often harder to reach and treat at this point. The VA says nearly 50 percent of the homeless veterans in this country in 2010 served in Vietnam.
Locally, Peter Callstrom, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which has been addressing the needs of the homeless here since the mid-1980s, says that in the last year there has been an 8 percent increase in homelessness in San Diego County and that nearly 25 percent of the homeless here are veterans.
A San Diego survey called Registry Week, which was initiated by Common Ground, whose national network of affordable apartments has enabled more than 4,000 individuals to overcome homelessness, concluded that in the Downtown area of San Diego (just the 92101 zip code), there were 1,040 people on the streets, and 740 of them agreed to be interviewed for the survey. Of those 740, nearly 25 percent identified themselves as veterans.
Overall, Callstrom notes, a survey of the entire county concluded that on one particular night, there were 8,574 homeless (people on the streets or in shelters), and that 23 percent of those were veterans.
In a recent survey, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) reports that 23% of the homeless population in America are veterans, and of those:
17% served post-Vietnam
15% served pre-Vietnam
67% served three or more years
33% were stationed in war zone
25% have used VA homeless services
85% completed high school/GED, compared to 56% of non-veterans
89% received an honorable discharge
79% reside in central cities
16% reside in suburban areas
5% reside in rural areas
76% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems
46% are white males, compared to 34% of non-veterans
46% are age 45 or older, compared to 20% non-veterans