Over the weekend, Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell caught up with Jason, a 33-year-old
former Marine from Wisconsin who served in Iraq. During the past four years, the
veteran has lived on the streets in and around Chicago's Greektown, a
life he thought ...
Over the weekend, Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell caught up with Jason, a 33-year-old former Marine from Wisconsin who served in Iraq. During the past four years, the veteran has lived on the streets in and around Chicago's Greektown, a life he thought unimaginable when he signed up to fight. After his discharge, he wasn’t mentally prepared to work and because his parents were gone and his marriage had fallen apart, he had no safety net:
JASON: I’m on food stamps, man. I have to live out of soup kitchens. I have to panhandle. I have to ask people for leftovers to eat.
Homelessness among veterans is not a new phenomenon. According to Mitchell's report, the VA estimates that on any given night 154,000 U.S. veterans lack shelter, most of whom served in Vietnam. And while a New York Times article from November 2007 found that just over 400 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have turned up homeless, that number will undoubtedly grow as more soldiers return from the battlefield:
Experts who work with veterans say it often takes several years after leaving military service for veterans’ accumulating problems to push them into the streets. But some aid workers say the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans appear to be turning up sooner than the Vietnam veterans did.
“We’re beginning to see, across the country, the first trickle of this generation of warriors in homeless shelters,” said Phil Landis, chairman of Veterans Village of San Diego, a residence and counseling center. “But we anticipate that it’s going to be a tsunami.”
So how is possible that someone who risked their live to serve their country could simply fall through the cracks? Untreated mental illness is one major problem. A Rand Corporation study from April found that while nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, only slightly more than half have sought treatment.
A shortage of affordable housing contributes as well. Horace Jones, who works with vets for a local agency called Inner Voice, tells WBEZ that "if you’re making minimum wage [or] $7.50 an hour, it’s kind of hard to support yourself and pay $650-$700 a month in rent."
Will veterans see support for their efforts grow with the election of a new president? Despite his deep commitment to military service, John McCain's record on veterans issues doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny. In May, The Nation's Brian Beutler dissected the Arizona Republican's tendency to work against veterans' interests in favor of privatization. On the other hand, a Barack Obama victory in November could help stave off the coming veteran crisis. Here's veteran John Hurley, writing about Obama's support for veterans rights at The Huffington Post in February:
Senator Obama, when he arrived in Washington, volunteered for the all important, but not very glamorous, Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs. In the wake of the housing and medical evaluation scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Obama introduced a sweeping bill, called the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, calling for comprehensive reforms in how our combat veterans and their families are treated.
Vets support Obama because he will fully fund the VA healthcare budget, will bring Priority 8 vets back into the VA healthcare system, will expand the GI Bill to allow spouses and children to be eligible to use veteran benefits and will treat Guardsmen and Reservists equally, and he will comprehensively address the pain and devastation brought onto vets by PTSD and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
And of critical importance, Barack Obama has pledged a "zero tolerance" policy to end veteran homelessness. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans noted in Congressional testimony that "We extend our deep gratitude to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) for catapulting homeless veteran issues onto the Senate agenda ...."
For more on homelessness among young veterans, be sure to check out the powerful documentary "When I Came Home" (pdf), which tells the story of Herold Noel, an Iraqi veteran who struggles to survive upon returning to his native Brooklyn.
Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user an0nym0usmuse.