Opinion Columns & Blogs

Homeless veterans need a hand from all of us

People falling on hard times or having some other problem that prevents them from having a roof over their heads is not a new phenomenon, but with all of the opportunities in this country it seems doubly sad when this occurs. The recent economic downturn surely has added to the pressures that cause homelessness. Anyone who spends time around certain areas in the city and especially near the river and the older part of town cannot help but notice people who either lack a home or are close to that plight. A special category of homeless citizens to consider is the homeless veteran. While the numbers are debated, many of the people who are homeless have served this country in uniform, often in combat. The issues causing civilians compounded by additional factors resulting from military service combine into a complex set of circumstances that can lead to a veteran being homeless.

According to an article titled “Homeless Veterans” by Thom Wilborn in the March/April edition of the Disabled American Veterans magazine, the Department of Veterans Affairs is devoting significant assets to attack this problem. The VA has included $3.5 billion in its 2010 budget and $4.2 billion in its 2011 budget to eliminate homeless veterans over the next five years.

There is a national hotline to help homeless veterans (1-877-424-3838). The VA web site (www.va.gov/HOMELESS/index.asp) lists a number of assistance programs for veterans in order to prevent their becoming homeless. Wilborn estimated a nationwide homeless veteran population of 107,000, which is down from a high of 240,000. However, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing an increase in homelessness. The rate has doubled. Wilborn wrote that 13,000 veterans of our wars today are homeless and 1,600 of those are women. Disabilities and in particular military service connected disabilities are hitting female homeless vets especially hard. Sexual trauma affects over half of them. As the father of a serving female soldier, that got my attention.

There are a number of agencies in the local area that are trying to help all homeless people. Liz Dillard of the Homeless Resources Network is working all of these issues hard. The next time you drive down Second Avenue, look to the wes and you’ll see her building. She told me that since 1999, the Homeless Resource Network has worked cases of support for 278 veterans. Our local government commissioned a task force to develop a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in the city. Their report estimated that 1,500 people experience a homeless night in Columbus every day. The school district has reported as many as 1,300 homeless children on a given day. Family problems such as divorce and domestic violence and losing a job are leading factors in causing this crisis. The inability to pay rent or a mortgage forces people onto the street. There are several organizations with shelters that are available to help, but the demand exceeds the number of beds. Caring for the homeless then is complicated by medical problems, especially when those problems require mental health treatment.

One of the groups in town that is focused on helping homeless veterans is the South Atlantic Center for Veterans Education and Training (SACVET; www.gcvret.org) founded by Freddie Harrison. He believes that as many as 25 percent of the local homeless are veterans. The major reasons for veterans to be homeless are the lack of affordable housing, the inability to find and keep a job, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mr. Harrison echoed the increasing number of female veterans and their history of sexual trauma. Most of the homeless veterans today are young. Many of the female homeless veterans also have children.

I find that even more troubling than all of the other issues, but that also backs up the school district report of homeless students. SACVET will host their fourth annual Homeless Veterans and Veterans Stand Down on April 30, starting at 7 a.m. in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. Several agencies will be on hand to provide a wide range of services for veterans in need. Each year the number of veterans attending has grown. Approximately 80 were helped the first year, 200 the second year, and 800 last year. If you want to assist SACVET, visit their web site or call 706-593-3393. The SACVET long range vision is to construct a facility designed to provide services and housing for veterans who are homeless.

Our city is fortunate to have many people who give their time and money to help homeless people in general and homeless veterans in particular. I have named only two. This problem is very real whether considering the civilian or the veteran.

The greatest nation on earth must continue to work hard to help our citizens in need. The needs of the men and women who risked their lives for this country certainly deserve some help. All of us need to roll up our sleeves and help where we can.

John M. House, an independent correspondent and retired Army colonel living in Midland, can be reached at housearmylife@gmail.com.