Veteran homelessness is a major problem in modern-day America. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are around 49,933 homeless Veterans on any given night.
While the homelessness crisis has plagued the U.S. for decades, many people wonder: Why are Veterans homeless? It seems they’ve served our country proudly, so we should return the favor by giving them the care they need when they return. But that’s often not the case.
While Veterans make up just 2% of the American population, they make up 11% of the adult homeless population.
So, what factors lead to Veterans becoming homeless? And more importantly, how can we help them?
Why Are People Homeless?
When asking “Why are Veterans homeless?” it’s good to first learn about the homelessness crisis in general. Let’s take a look at the factors that lead to someone — not necessarily a Veteran — becoming homeless.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not that hard to become homeless. Over half a million Americans are homeless right now, which translates to about 0.17% of the population. Forbes reported in January 2019 that around 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck — meaning, over three-quarters of Americans are one paycheck away from potential homelessness.
The biggest factors that lead to homelessness include:
- Job loss
- Divorce or separation
- A family member kicking them out
- Domestic violence
- Mental health issues
- Poor physical health or medical condition
These things can happen to anyone. But many of us have a “safety net” preventing homelessness. This safety net can be a family member, friend, mentor, or something else. However, not everyone has that same support, and when they lose their job, partner, or health, they suddenly find themselves in a place they never thought they’d be: on the streets.
Why Are Veterans Homeless?
There are certain groups of people who are more at risk for becoming homeless, and one of those groups is Veterans.
When I talked to Brandonn Mixon, an Army Veteran and the founder of the Veterans Community Project, I asked him the same question: Why are Veterans homeless? What leads to a Veteran becoming homeless? His answer was deceptively simple. “Feeling alone.”
“Feeling like they got left behind. Not knowing how to navigate the system of what comes next,” he said.
All of us know what it’s like to feel alone. But that feeling is magnified 10 times for some of these Veterans, who get out of the military and have nowhere to turn, no one to turn to. Oftentimes, they’re too ashamed to ask for the help that they need. Some of them know how to live in a combat zone, but not in the civilian world.
Other factors that contribute to Veteran homelessness include:
- Mental illness brought on by their military service, such as PTSD
- Physical disability caused by their military service
- Addiction to alcohol or drugs to cope with trauma
- Loss of their job and support network (such as when they left the military)
53% of homeless Veterans are disabled, and half suffer from mental illness. Another unsurprising statistic is that nearly half of all homeless Veterans are Vietnam Veterans. These Veterans are especially vulnerable because they served in one of the bloodiest wars in U.S. history, and when they got back they were faced with discrimination and hatred.
How Do We Help?
While most of us want to help, it’s easy to become jaded or wary when it comes to the homeless population. As anyone who’s lived in a big city like Los Angeles or Seattle can testify — sometimes, it’s just downright scary.
First, it’s important to remember that many people experiencing homelessness are suffering from mental illness that they cannot control. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but it points to an issue much larger than them; the issue with mental healthcare in the U.S.
I say “people experiencing homelessness,” because that’s another thing: If we call them “homeless people,” it becomes their identity. The sad truth is that Veterans who are homeless often stay homeless longer than non-Veterans. But the word “homeless” doesn’t define their existence. They are people who have names, families, histories, and traits that go far beyond their current circumstances.
Here are a few ways you can lend a helping hand:
- Volunteer at your local food bank. Donate food and stay to help hand it out. It feels good to know that your actions are saving someone from going to bed hungry; and potentially saving their life.
- Support a homeless shelter. Donate clothes, food, and other essentials to a homeless shelter near you. You can also volunteer your time, because these shelters are often understaffed and underfunded, which is part of why there are so many Veterans on the street.
- Reach out to Stand Down. “Stand Down” is an organization that provides a secure “base camp” for Veterans, giving them food, hygiene products, clean clothes, medical and dental care, food, company, and a place to lay their heads at night. Find an event near you or call to ask how you can help.
These are just a few ideas to get you started making a difference for the Veterans in your area. For more information, visit the VA website here and consider giving them your time (or even starting your own community fundraiser and support!)
There’s no justifiable answer to the question “Why are Veterans homeless?” But there is something that everyone can do, and the bottom line is: It’s getting better. Veteran homelessness has decreased by an astounding 50% since 2010.
So, don’t lose hope. And don’t stop fighting for Veterans.