Study: Veterans Make Up 1 In 4 Homeless

Vietnam veteran Lonnie Bowen Jr. smokes a cigarette outside the The Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. A new report scheduled to be released Thursday shows nearly a half-million veterans were homeless last year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Lonnie Bowen Jr. was once a social worker, but for 17 years the Vietnam war veteran has slept on the streets off and on as he's battled substance abuse and mental health problems.

"It's been a hard struggle," said Bowen, 62, as he rolled a cigarette outside a homeless processing center in downtown Philadelphia, where he planned to seek help for his drug and alcohol problem, as he has before.

Every night, hundreds of thousands of veterans like Bowen are without a home.

Veterans make up one in four homeless people in the United States, though they are only 11 percent of the general adult population, according to a report to be released Thursday by the Alliance to End Homelessness, a public education nonprofit.

And homelessness is not just a problem among middle-age and elderly veterans. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are trickling into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help with finding a job.

The Veterans Affairs Department has identified 1,500 homeless veterans from the current wars and says 400 of them have participated in its programs specifically targeting homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a public education nonprofit, based the findings of its report on numbers from Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau. Data from 2005 estimated that 194,254 homeless people out of 744,313 on any given night were veterans.

In comparison, the VA says that 20 years ago, the estimated number of veterans who were homeless on any given night was 250,000.

Some advocates say such an early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.

"We're going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous," said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.

While services for homeless veterans have improved in the past 20 years, advocates say more financial resources still are needed. With the spotlight on the plight of Iraq veterans, they hope more will be done to prevent homelessness and provide affordable housing to the younger veterans while there's a window of opportunity.

"When the Vietnam War ended, that was part of the problem. The war was over, it was off TV, nobody wanted to hear about it," said John Keaveney, a Vietnam veteran and a founder of New Directions in Los Angeles, which gives veterans help with substance abuse, job training and shelter.

"I think they'll be forgotten," Keaveney said of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. "People get tired of it. It's not glitzy that these are young, honorable, patriotic Americans. They'll just be veterans, and that happens after every war."

Keaveney said it's difficult for his group to persuade some homeless Iraq veterans to stay for treatment and help because they don't relate to the older veterans. Those who stayed have had success - one is now a stock broker and another is applying to be a police officer, he said.

"They see guys that are their father's age and they don't understand, they don't know, that in a couple of years they'll be looking like them," he said.

After being discharged from the military, Jason Kelley, 23, of Tomahawk, Wis., who served in Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard, took a bus to Los Angeles looking for better job prospects and a new life.

Kelley said he couldn't find a job because he didn't have an apartment, and he couldn't get an apartment because he didn't have a job. He stayed in a $300-a-week motel until his money ran out, then moved into a shelter run by the group U.S. VETS in Inglewood, Calif. He's since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"The only training I have is infantry training and there's not really a need for that in the civilian world," Kelley said in a phone interview. He has enrolled in college and hopes to move out of the shelter soon.

The Iraq vets seeking help with homelessness are more likely to be women, less likely to have substance abuse problems, but more likely to have mental illness - mostly related to post-traumatic stress, said Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the VA.