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Spotlight on Homeless Women Vets

War Zone Comfort ZoneLike many entertainers, comedian Greg Proops is anti-war but pro-soldier, and believes that a lot of Americans see no choice other than enlistment, because “the economy is so awful and I think that the underclass has to join the service to get three squares and some health care.” And nowadays, the underclass includes just about everybody. Now, what about when the soldiering is over and the person has to reestablish a life at home?

The performer wants his audiences to realize that when veterans are discharged, in many cases their troubles are just beginning. They expect the experience they have gained and the service they have rendered to count for something. Instead, they often find themselves hungry, sick, disabled, mentally confused, emotionally troubled, and experiencing homelessness.

The boring, preachy part

When Proops records shows in front of live audiences, each episode includes a “boring preachy part” where he launches a tirade against whatever current news item has stirred up his indignation. Actually, these rants are far from dull, and in his June 3 podcast he took the opportunity to point out that female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the American homeless population. Proops was alerted to this dismaying fact by the documentary, War Zone/Comfort Zone, which is now available on YouTube.

For Memorial Day, filmmaker Lizzie Warren described her experience in the pages of Salon:

I followed the story of two women — one of them a Gold Star mother — who fight to establish Connecticut’s first transitional, supportive house for women veterans. The women and their allies faced neighborhood opposition in several towns, and establishing a home with fifteen beds for women veterans and their children took more than four years.

Four years! To get 15 women and kids into a house! There are thousands and thousands of homeless veterans out there, and more arriving every day. This rate of progress is unacceptable. Warren notes that:

Women veterans face a dense constellation of issues: low wages, a lack of childcare and family housing options, inadequate gender-specific services at the Veterans Administration and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from combat and Military Sexual Trauma.

A February New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown hit the same theme:

While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs.

We would add that a great number of vets suffer from the effects of PTSD, which is not the same as mental illness, being more preventable and more treatable. It is an enormous factor just the same.

At least 10% of the homeless veterans who are known to have spent nights in shelters are women. Transitional housing funded by Department of Veterans Affairs grants are mostly designed for single men, and 60% of them don’t allow children. Yet female veterans are much more likely than males to have custody of children.

California, here we come

Brown points out that a quarter of homeless women vets (and men too) are located in California. One out of every four homeless veterans lives there, yet as House the Homeless recently noted, California is a state whose bureaucracy has not yet caught up with the reporting requirements that were put in place to help the VA keep track of veteran suicides. This too is unacceptable.

Texas is another large state that is both rife with homeless veterans and behind in its statistical reporting. Journalists started noticing at least a couple of years ago that expanded services were needed, especially for women, especially for women with dependent children.

Alex Branch interviewed the director of Fort Worth’s nonprofit organization Grace After Fire. Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, is tuned in to every nuance of the situation. Branch quotes Olson:

Almost all the facilities built to help homeless veterans are built around the male model. You don’t find them with child care, and playgrounds and common areas for women. We are going to need those kinds of places.

At the time when Branch did his research, the homeless veterans program administered by the VA in Fort Worth had housed 117 veterans, of which only 12 were women. He also took care to point out that although female veterans might be better educated than their civilian counterparts, their unemployment rate is twice as high because the skills they learned in the military do not carry over well into civilian life.

On this page, the Government Accountability Office offers a downloadable PDF document called “Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing” which addresses the needs of women vets.

Reactions?

Source: “No holidays or parades for homeless women veterans,” Salon, 05/27/13
Source: “Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home,” The New York Times, 02/28/13
Source: “Help hard to find for homeless female veterans,” Star-Telegram.com, 03/09/11
Image by Lizzie Warren.

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Possibilities for Homeless Veterans

Veterans Stand Down

Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam combat novel Matterhorn, also wrote What It is Like to Go to War. He is interested finding a way to stretch out the period of transition from martial existence to civilian life.

In this respect, things were better in the aftermath of World War II when, because of transportation logistics, the journey home might take weeks or months. Something counterintuitive is at work here. Theoretically, it would seem best for everybody to get home as soon as possible.

But in the old, slow days, even without therapy or indeed any special attention to their psychological conditions, veterans had a chance to adjust. During a literal journey, they had a chance to make a mental journey, and process their memories before being expected to act normal. This probably helped with the re-entry period into civilian life, stateside.

Marlantes would also like to see something along the lines of a disarming ceremony, and other public rituals signifying a person’s change from warrior to everyday citizen.

Rodger Ruge, the crisis intervention counselor previously mentioned by House the Homeless, is interested in starting damage control even sooner — in training. As Teresa Shumaker reported, Ruge sees early preparation as a way to dramatically reduce the effects of PTSD:

If we can give everybody an idea of how to inoculate the body from stress, like the breath work we did in the class, if we did as much training on the front end when preparing them to go into service, they would be able to use the techniques they learned while they are having those experiences… Why are we not front-loading when we know what the result is? We already know; we have known since World War II. It doesn’t take that much time. It might be the extension of a couple of weeks in boot camp, in terms of time and it can be integrated into all the things they already do.

In Washington

At one point, 67 senators of all political persuasions joined in writing a letter to President Obama asking him to do something about the time lag between when a veteran needs help and when she or he gets it, caused by an extreme case load backlog. The website Challenge.gov, in partnership with ChallengePost, is sponsoring the VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest.

For the homeless, it’s not easy to hang onto possessions, even vital ones like a DD-214, which documents an honorable discharge from the military. Backpacks get stolen, stuff gets confiscated and burned by the authorities. Sometimes it just plain gets lost.

As things stand, only “lifers” who have completed the time-in-service requirement for retirement, and those who received a medical-related discharge, are issued I.D. Cards. If the bill known as H.R. 1598 passes, a new category of I.D. Card could be purchased by a veteran who did not go all the way to retirement, as long as there is proof of an honorable discharge. It would not entitle the person to any government benefits or services, but would be useful nonetheless.

Here is an excerpt from the congressional findings regarding the Veteran’s I.D. Card Act:

Goods, services, and promotional activities are often offered by public and private institutions to veterans who demonstrate proof of service in the military but it is impractical for a veteran to always carry official DD–214 discharge papers to demonstrate such proof.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless notes that a photo ID would be easier to keep possession of, and more likely to be held onto by its owner.

Reactions?

Source: “What It is Like to Go to War Quotes,” GoodReads
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness and why many veterans,” The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest,” Challenge.gov
Source: “Veteran’s I.D. Card Act,” SunlightFoundation.com
Image by Maryland GovPics.

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Homeless Veterans and Suicide

Sleeping bagIn Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:

There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.

Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:

I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.

The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.

Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.

Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.

Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:

There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.

National Survey of Homeless Veterans

Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.

They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.

The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:

The data […] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…

Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”

Reactions?

Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).

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Veterans and Suicide, Part 3

Main Street BeggingSuicide among active-duty military personnel has been a much-discussed topic in the past couple of years. The Department of Defense has a system in place that records suicide data from all branches, and the information is available month by month. They don’t wait until the end of the year to tally up and release the total.

Still, the numbers are uncertain, because authorities are not always sure what happened. Here is a sample from a government press release:

For 2012, there have been 182 potential active-duty suicides: 130 have been confirmed as suicides and 52 remain under investigation… For 2012, there have been 143 potential not on active-duty suicides (96 Army National Guard and 47 Army Reserve): 117 have been confirmed as suicides and 26 remain under investigation.

This is just the Army. Though statistics from the other branches are compiled they are hard to find. And even concerning the Army, it is perhaps not widely realized that the category of “not on active duty” (in the reserves) is counted separately from active duty.

Speaking of the National Guard, some journalists conscientiously keep track. For ABC15 News, Lori Jane Gliha reported on one particular group of nearly 200 Arizona soldiers who had been sent to Iraq together. In 2006, only some of them came back. Gliha wrote:

It was a long, tough deployment. Thirty-six members received Purple Hearts and two were killed in Iraq… Since their return, the unit has lost twice as many soldiers to suicide.

After Discharge

Likewise, “not on active duty” is of course different from discharged. When it comes to veterans, no matter who collects the data, or how, it is bound to be approximate. For one thing, death certificates don’t always note whether the person was a veteran, nor do they always specify that the death was by suicide. The federal government gets its statistics from death certificates, so it only know as much as those documents tell. The latest report from the VA’s Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program (59 pages) can be found in downloadable PDF format.

Compiled by Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, this report got its information from the State Mortality Project, Suicide Behavior Reports, and the Veterans Crisis Line. Until the system is really up and running, the information only comes in from 21 states. Even more discouraging, the states that have so far caught up with the reporting requirements do not include California and Texas, both of which contain vast numbers of military veterans. So the figures are derived from less than half of the states, and extrapolated to the nation as a whole. In other words, the veteran suicide total is a wild guess.

More Perspectives

Writer Pat Shannan looks at the problem from another angle:

Using figures from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Portland State University noted that male veterans kill themselves twice as often as their civilian counterparts and that female veterans are three times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women… Figures gleaned from the two wars showed while 6,460 died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 11 years, those United States soldiers who died by their own hand is estimated to be greater than that.

In a little over a decade, more active-duty soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat. (Has this happened ever in history?) The veteran suicide rate is estimated to be about 8,000 per year, which breaks down to 22 per day, which translates to almost one every hour! Among them, Vietnam veterans are still very present. They sometimes refuse to seek help. At-risk vets who have started the process of seeking help for suicide prevention, sometimes don’t follow up. In Psychology Today, Eric Newhouse wrote about the total number of suicides in America for the time period:

Of the 60 year olds, only 8.1 percent were civilians, but 16.5 percent were vets and 19.6 percent participated in the VA system. Of the 70 year olds, only 4.6 percent were civilians, but 18.6 percent were vets and 20 percent participated in the VA system.

In other words, even though one out of five of those older vets were hooked up with the system, it apparently was not able to prevent their self-destruction. This is bitter news.

Collateral Damage

The Military Suicide Research Consortium (MSRC) is an entity created by the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Florida State University, and funded by a $17-million Department of Defense grant. The MSRC’s mandate is to integrate the powers of both governmental and civilian agencies, to turn this trend of military suicide around. It is headed by a colonel and assisted by a military advisory board, so, as the saying goes, “consider the source.” Is it a cosmetic effort to make a bad situation look better?

Apparently not. The MSRC does not seem to be trying to hide a thing. Via its website, a large number of “white papers” are available for consultation, including studies of the efficacy of herbs and nutritional supplements for suicide prevention, and other surprising topics. Also, the site contains such headlines as:

Survivor Suicides: Alarming trend of family members committing suicide after service members die in battle.

Yes, the collateral damage includes the relatives and spouses of the direct-combat casualties. There is yet another layer of complication to cope with, as military courts struggle with the question of whether a suicide attempt by an active-duty service member is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Furthermore, those who are considering suicide may be reluctant to seek the help they need because if they live, the unfavorable notations on their permanent records will hinder however much of their military career remains. Another unwelcome surprise is the knowledge that personnel who were assigned to more covert activities when on active duty in, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan, have an even harder time getting help than the average service member.

When it comes to the next subcategory we will consider, homeless veteran suicides, the numbers are even more fuzzy. As far as anybody knows right now, about 62,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness. Although both the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development collect data, accuracy is frustratingly elusive. When the suicide of any homeless person is reported to the national database, information about the individual’s military service is provided (or not) to the staff of the funeral home by the family, if there is any family. For many homeless suicides, such information is simply unavailable.

Reactions?

Source: “Army Releases December 2012 and Calendar Year 2012 Suicide Information,” Defense.gov, 02/01/13
Source: “Arizona National Guard soldiers slipping through cracks as veteran suicide rates rise,” ABC15.com, 04/16/13
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.gov, 2012
Source: “Military Suicides Hit Epidemic Levels,” American Free Press, 03/27/13
Source: “Soaring Vets’ Suicide Rates,” Psychology Today, 03/06/13
Source: “About the Military Suicide Research Consortium,” MSRC
Image by Greg Watt.