There were more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. in January 2012, according to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Social workers across the nation are working to end veteran homelessness through various outreach programs and initiatives, both large and small. But, they say it is important to first identify the reasons for the homelessness, which can include substance abuse, poverty and mental health issues.
In 2009, President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced a goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. In response, the VA — which employs more social workers than any other U.S. agency — created the Homeless Veterans Outreach Initiative. According to the VA’s website, the number of veterans who are homeless has dropped by 17.2 percent since then.
NASW-Illinois member Bob Adams founded the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, where he is currently board president and clinical director. He said it is often a very gradual process for a veteran to become homeless.
“It’s not one big terrible thing that happens and they suddenly become homeless, but a series of events that lead up to it,” Adams said. “Being deployed can create problems such as PTSD, marital difficulties, employment difficulties — and it’s difficult to recover from those experiences.”
NASW-New Mexico member Geri Lynn Weinstein Matthews produced a feature documentary called “Justice Denied,” which explores military sexual trauma. She said veterans can become homeless as a result of this trauma, as well as depression and other mental health issues that can impact their employment status, interactions with society and, in general, how they conduct themselves in civilian life.
“What happens sometimes is they are not able to function well enough without mental health support, if they are suffering from mental health issues,” Matthews said. “This starts a spiral to losing their job, and not being able to cope.”
She said there is a national responsibility to give back to veterans for all they have done for our country.
“As a social worker, this is a population near and dear to my heart. And I’ve had personal experience, when my husband (a veteran) became depressed and suicidal,” she said. “We came close to losing our house, and it was very scary. I know the feeling of coming close to that, and I don’t want to see other people come into that situation.”
Debbie Stevens, LCSW, left, sits with Michael Ramsdell,
a homeless veteran who served in the U.S. Army.
Ramsdell found full time employment, and is now
working with Stevens to find an apartment.
NASW-Wyoming member Debbie Stevens, who is a licensed clinical social worker at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing in Sheridan, Wyo., said veterans come out of the military with a different way of thinking, and often have trouble adjusting to civilian society.
They can struggle with employment and fitting in with others as a result, she said. Those who suffer from mental health issues often can’t overcome the stigma associated with it, and have trouble seeking help, she added, which can start a pattern of substance abuse.
“They have to ease back in, which takes time,” Stevens said. “And many turn to substance abuse to cope, as they see it as the most socially acceptable method.”
Measuring independence and self-worth by working and earning a paycheck are things we all tell ourselves are meaningful, she said. But veterans may come back to the civilian world hurt, with trauma or a physical disability, and they’ve seen extremely tragic things in combat, which makes it hard to automatically find and settle into an everyday civilian job routine — especially if they feel a stigma about seeking help.
“They think ‘I can serve and die for my country,’ but for whatever reason the culture doesn’t recognize why they are hurting on the inside,” Stevens said.
Adams said veterans often don’t seek help until they are deep into their challenges.
“It’s not until then, they show up at the VA, and they realize some of the issues they didn’t even know they had,” he said. “It often starts with difficulty with relationships, both personal and professional, and there’s a spiral downward.”
Jonas Goldenberg, director of Clinical Issues and Continuing Education at the NASW Massachusetts Chapter, said veteran homelessness is an important issue on another level, because these men and women have bravely served their country and should be acknowledged for their service.
“From a very patriotic view, we owe it to our veterans,” Goldenberg said. “It’s sad for anyone to be homeless, and there are certainly different political stances about what we should do about that. At the very least, there should be no veterans who have to be on the street.”
These are the men and women who allow us to live the way we live, Adams said, and social workers are uniquely positioned to help them.
It is important for social workers to realize that many veterans are in need of the help they have been trained to give, he said. “ … One of our core values is to meet the client where they are.”
Stevens said she recognizes that many social workers are spread thin with responsibilities, but finding time to focus attention on the issue and possibly champion for local advocacy can help keep the goal of ending veteran homelessness a top priority.
“Political offices change, a new person comes in with a new agenda, and sometimes things can be handed off,” she said. “By staying on top of the issue, we can make sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks.”
Adams said the VA is pushing very hard to end veteran homelessness, and volunteering is a way social workers can help.
“We have all these veterans returning to civilian life from two wars — Afghanistan and Iraq — and they will need our help,” he said. “The VA has done a great deal of work in this area, but the VA can’t do this all alone. Social workers can help by volunteering a little bit of time to local social work agencies and professional groups dedicated to the cause.”
There are programs out there, such as Give an Hour, to donate time to, Adams said, and social workers not involved in the VA should be encouraged to offer help to a homeless veteran free of charge.
“A good way to start is by calling your local VA, and find out how you can help with this,” he said.
NASW members can take another small step in the right direction by simply calling their local NASW chapter and offering to start a shared-interest group or committee, Goldenberg said.
“Get some like-minded colleagues to join you and brainstorm on ways to help end veteran homelessness in your local area,” he said. “It just takes one person to say ‘I want to do this,’ and approach their chapter and run with it.”
Give an Hour™ is a national nonprofit organization providing free mental health services to members of the military, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, their loved ones, and their communities.
For more information, visit Give an Hour