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The Homeless Vets Situation

Last time, we looked at some of the bright spots in the homeless veteran situation. For example, by one count, over 2,400 nonprofit groups in America have programs for homeless veterans. Still, despite those and other good programs, the situation is still desperate.

For starters, there are public misconceptions. Some people have known vets who were very well cared for by Uncle Sam. Maybe some still are. But, overall, things are not looking good. People think, “Oh, they can go to the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars,” but there are strict limits to the available benefits. If the person was never awarded a Purple Heart, for instance, or never actually fought overseas, they don’t qualify.

Media-wise, the situation is unclear. Compare these two headlines that appeared within two weeks of each other:

Homeless veteran numbers drop by 55000: VA

Number of homeless veterans explodes

In the first one, Molly O’Toole reports for Reuters:

The number of homeless veterans on any given night has dropped by over 55,000, the Department of Veterans Affairs said on Friday.

The second headline belongs to a USA TODAY article, published only a few days later, in which Gregg Zoroya said,

More than 10,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are homeless or in programs aimed at keeping them off the streets, a number that has doubled three times since 2006, according to figures released by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The rise comes at a time when the total number of homeless veterans has declined from a peak of about 400,000 in 2004 to 135,000 today.

That report was based on the most recent (2009) count, which found 75,609 homeless veterans on a designated night. Slightly less than half of those people were sleeping rough, while slightly more than half were in shelters or transitional living facilities.

Over the year when the information was gathered, a significantly larger number of veterans were homeless for various lengths of time, because the number of those who spent at least one night in a shelter or transitional facility totaled 136,334.

Horror stories show up periodically, like the shooting of Thomas Higginbotham by police in Portland earlier this year. And, of course, there is always corruption. In June, Renee Dudley reported on the legal difficulties of the head of a nonprofit organization for homeless veterans in Charleston, SC:

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating whether the former director of a North Charleston veterans’ homeless shelter broke federal laws by using taxpayer-funded grants to bankroll her own lifestyle… The auditors called Cook’s $130,000 annual salary and additional benefits ‘unreasonable when compared to like positions in the industry.’…

The audit also found that health insurance coverage for the shelter’s two paid employees… was paid entirely by the veterans’ grants… Recently released bank statements show Cook used the account to pay for a hotel stay at Folly Beach, downtown dining and yoga lessons…

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Source: “Homeless veteran numbers drop by 55000: VA,” Reuters, 07/15/11
Source: “Number of homeless veterans explodes,” USATODAY.com, 07/26/11
Source: “Veterans 50 Percent More Likely To Be Homeless, Study Shows,” The Huffington Post, 02/10/11
Source: “Nancy Cook focus of Veterans Affairs inquiry,” PostandCourier.com, 06/17/11
Image by Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.