By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007
As many as 195,800 military veterans were homeless on any given night last year, and there are "troubling" indications that many service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan could eventually face the same fate, according to a study being released today.
The report, from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, found that veterans make up a quarter of the United States' homeless population and that the District has a particularly high rate, with an estimated 7.5 percent of the nearly 32,000 veterans in the city living on the streets, in shelters or in assisted housing.
The report, which relied on data from Veterans Affairs facilities across the country, reflects a slight increase from previous estimates and confirms past surveys showing that former service members are much more likely to face homelessness than the rest of the population.
Although veterans make up about 11 percent of the civilian adult population, they represent 26 percent of homeless people, a figure the report calls "shockingly disproportionate."
"As a country, I think we should be shocked and concerned that 200,000 veterans don't have a place to go," said Stacey Stewart, former president and chief executive of the Fannie Mae Foundation, which is to announce a $200,000 grant today to build housing for veterans. "It begs the question: Shouldn't those who served their country be better served by the society that benefited from their service?"
The problem could grow worse with the return of many troops from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, conditions that put them at high risk for homelessness, the report says. The VA has said 45 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, including many with PTSD.
The VA has reported that 300 troops from Afghanistan and Iraq have used VA services for homeless shelters. The U.S. Veterans Initiative is providing assistance across the country to 80 veterans from those conflicts.
The high percentage of homeless veterans in the District could reflect its urban nature, the concentration of services provided in the city and the lack of affordable housing, said Mary Cunningham, director of the alliance's Homelessness Research Institute.
"Our data indicates veterans in D.C. face severe rent burden because of the lack of affordable housing in the region," she said. "This is why we need more permanent housing subsidies targeted to veterans."
Neil Volz, a U.S. Veterans Initiative administrator who assists homeless veterans in the District, said the disproportionate number of former service members is evident on the city's streets.
"There are several things that jump out," he said. "The trauma they are exposed to can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse issues and being away from their families," he said. "Then you combine that with a lack of affordable housing."
The study found there were 3,300 homeless veterans in Maryland in 2006, about 0.64 percent of the state's veteran population. About 870 former service members were listed as homeless in Virginia, just 0.12 percent of the state's total.
The sharp differences in the neighboring states, each of which has a large veteran population, points to the imprecise nature of the homelessness statistics in the report. The disparity might be explained by different methodologies for counting in different jurisdictions, Cunningham said. "Counting homeless people in general is inherently difficult," she said.
Judah Israel, 51, a D.C. resident who said he served in the Army from 1973 to 1976, described in an interview yesterday how he has been homeless since the 1980s and gone through a series of jobs.
"I've never been able to hold one long," he said. "I've been homeless everywhere."
Israel said hearing loss he suffered through extended exposure to artillery fire has contributed to his problems. Many of the homeless people he has encountered over the years are veterans, as well, he said. "Our problem is housing is not easy to get," he said.
Israel has lived for the past year in an apartment in Northeast Washington he has rented with the assistance of Pathways to Housing, a New York-based nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing for veterans.
"When people get settled, that's when they decide they want a job," said Linda Kaufman, chief executive of the organization.
A Gallup poll of veterans to be released today by Fannie Mae found that almost one-quarter have been concerned that they might not have a place to live.
In addition, the survey of 1,005 veterans, conducted in September and October with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, found that 34 percent were at least somewhat concerned that medical expenses could cause them or their family to become homeless.
The nightly total number of homeless veterans in 2006 represents an increase of 0.8 percent from the 194,254 in 2005, but a sharp decline from the estimated 250,000 a decade ago.
The decline may reflect the passing of the country's aging veteran population. Nationwide there are 23.4 million veterans, of whom almost 1 percent are homeless on any given night, Cunningham said.