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More ex-soldiers at risk of homelessness

 INSP 21 November 2019

Tens of thousands of Western troops will leave Iraq and Afghanistan and make the journey home over the next couple of years. Those who then leave the military will face an even more perilous journey – the road back into civilian society, where weak economic growth has made it increasingly difficult to get work. (2354 Words) - By Sarah Edmonds*

Reuters_A soldier with BRAVO Company Royal Canadian Regiment_TEXT

Reuters_A soldier with BRAVO Company Royal Canadian Regiment

A soldier with BRAVO Company, 1st battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment is silhouetted against sunrise during a patrol in Panjwai district, southern Afghanistan.Photo: REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

From soldier to street paper vendor

A survey conducted by the International Network of Street Papers in June 2011 showed that a quarter of street papers in the network have seen an increase in the number of homeless war veterans in their cities in the last two years.

Around a third of street papers, who provide employment for homeless and marginalised people, currently have ex-soldiers as part of their vendor base. At some street papers over 30% of vendors report prior military service. The numbers are highest in the United States and Canada, but street papers across Western Europe also work with vendors who served in the army. The legacy of war in the Balkans accounts for many homeless veterans in Eastern Europe, some of whom now work as street paper vendors in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine.

But the problem is not exclusive to the US and Europe. Street papers in Australia and Asia also report to provide employment to ex-soldiers. South Korea's street paper registered 74 veterans as vendors in the past two years alone, and sister publications in Japan and Taiwan also report former soldiers in their vendor base. A lack of jobs, government support and recognition for mental problems of veterans are reported as main causes for homelessness amongst this group. [89 INSP street papers on 6 continents took part in the survey].

This is a road that has already led to poverty and even to homelessness for thousands of veterans who travelled it in better economic times. Those who will now follow in their footsteps will be entering the mainstream amid increased risk of recession in Europe and the United States and stubbornly high unemployment.

Government agencies in the United States, Britain, Canada and other nations that support those who have served are braced for the expected influx of new veterans. Officials are implementing new programmes to help ease the transition from the military to civilian life. The great unknown though, is how the economy will fare in months ahead.

Dr. Susan Angell, Executive Director of the Veterans Homeless Initiative at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the VA will be keeping a concerned eye on those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan given trends already evident in the job market.

"That population, that young population, has the highest unemployment rate of any of our veteran populations and it's much higher than the overall unemployment rate. So we're very concerned about this group," she said. According to Angell, joblessness among these younger veterans is running around 11.5 percent - higher still among women vets.

Jobs are crucial since officials and homeless experts agree that while a variety of factors make some veterans more vulnerable to personal crisis than the wider populace, the main reason they end up on the street is not drink or mental difficulties - it is poverty.

The United States plans to withdraw the rest of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. In Afghanistan, NATO is training a force of 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers to take over when the last foreign troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.

"We are far from seeing the true wave of people who will become homeless"

There are still relatively few of this new breed of veteran in the homeless population. But according to Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the U.S. National Coalition of the Homeless, those on the path to homelessness are still at the early stages of that transition.

"This is my 33rd year working in homeless services so I have seen Vietnam veterans, I have seen other veterans, (and) I kind of have a good sense of how long it takes to come back home and spiral down. And it takes a while. It doesn't happen in a year and it doesn't happen in two years," he said.

"What tends to happen is you have a year's worth of nightmares and then your wife leaves," he said, "And then you have another year of nightmares and the Oxycontin or the Percoset that you're on stop working because it's a narcotic that will only work for so long and then the pain becomes so profound that you begin using it beyond the prescribed amount and then the doctor won't prescribe it any longer so you start self-medicating and then you start getting into illegal behaviour."

At this point, up to three years down the road, the soon-to-be-homeless veteran slides below the poverty line and the risk of homelessness becomes acute.

"So we are quite far out from seeing the true wave of people who will become homeless. And there are going to be a lot of people who are homeless and the people who are homeless are going to be people who are physically handicapped as well as emotionally handicapped," Donovan added.

There are other dangers in the current economy for the newest crop of veterans. Many Western countries are cutting spending as they wrestle with huge deficits, and that could threaten funding for vital programmes just at the point the newest crop needs help.

Canada recently proposed C$226 million in budget cuts from Veterans Affairs, but a government spokesman told Vancouver street magazine Megaphone these were aimed at improving efficiency rather than lowering benefits.

NDP MP Peter Stoffer said he was concerned about the impact on health care and services. "As the official Opposition critic for Veterans Affairs, I have many examples of how the system of caring for our veterans is broken," he wrote in a blog on the Canadian Veterans Advocacy website. "Veterans' homelessness is also on the rise and more veterans are using food banks."

Funding at the U.S. VA has actually risen after a 2009 pledge by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama to end veteran homelessness by 2015. But Angell agrees it is hard to predict what will happen in future.

"It's hard to imagine that people wouldn't be behind the employment of veterans," she said. "And really that's not just a government issue - that's the American People's issue. It's not up to government to hire every single veteran. It's really up to the private sector to join forces with that and make those employment opportunities available."

Even though there are relatively few young veterans in the homeless population, there are already signs of potential trouble.

"The young population has the highest unemployment rate of any of our veterans"

Jordan Moore, 20, went to Afghanistan with Britain's Coldstream Guards in 2008 when he was just 17 years old. He left military service after two and a half years and found himself unable to readjust to life in Sunderland in the north east of England.

"When I came home, I kind of lost my friends," he said. "I had to keep things to myself. Even now, people don't know the things I did, the things that went on (in Afghanistan). They don't really ask about it."

He slid into substance abuse before seeking help from UK charity Norcare, which set up a veterans' centre in Newcastle last year. "When I was at my worst, I was either staying in and drinking or taking drugs on my own, or when I went into town, I'd always seem to want to get into a fight," Moore said. "It wasn't until Christmas, after I completely snapped in front of my mum, that I realised I had a problem."

Determining a global count of veterans on the street is difficult, in part because of varying official definitions of what constitutes homelessness.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 144,842 American veterans, or 11.5 percent of homeless adults, spent at least one night in emergency or transitional housing between October 2009 and September 2010, down 3 percent from the year before. A second measure, the number of homeless veterans on a single night, rose 1 percent.

For its part, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in the United States estimates that while only 8 percent of the general populace are veterans, those who served in the military account for nearly one-fifth of the adult homeless population.

Official counts are likely low since they leave out veterans who never register at a homeless facility - those who go from friend's house to friend's house, sleep in cars, in the woods or on the streets. It also leaves out those who don't admit to being veterans.

In Britain, one study showed 3 percent of those found sleeping on the streets in London between April 2009 and March 2010 had served in the military.

Experts cite a host of reasons veterans may be at risk of homelessness - trouble adjusting to the chaotic rhythm of "normal" life after the comforting rigor of military routine, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, difficulty translating work in the service into marketable job skills, loss of camaraderie, dependence on alcohol or drugs, serious physical injury.

Veterans can also contend with all the issues that can cause homelessness in the mainstream of society - lack of affordable housing, jobs that don't pay a living wage, red tape that makes social services impossible to navigate, physical or mental disabilities.

The new crop of veterans also face a greater likelihood of serious physical disability than those of the past, according to Alison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits at the U.S. VA,

"Those claims are coming in far more complex than we have experienced in past conflicts, largely for a good news reason," Hickey said. "Our veterans are ... 10 times more likely to survive a major injury or illness and that's a good thing, but that means that we are going to be taking care of many more people for some very serious injuries for a long time."

Donovan said there is an increased risk of substance abuse in U.S. veterans who suffer debilitating injuries because doctors often prescribe potentially addictive painkillers.

John Alford, 57, turned to the bottle after serving in Northern Ireland. Blinded in one eye by a nail bomb during his service with the First Gloucestershire Regiment, he saw two colleagues shot by snipers.

"After I left the army, I found it difficult to fit in and settle anywhere, and drink becomes something you suppress it all with"

"You can never forget something like that," he said. "After I left the army, I found it difficult to fit in and settle anywhere, and drink becomes something you suppress it all with. I lost a lot through it. I've been married four times." Alford has left drink behind and is establishing a new life, assisted by the Forces Self Build Scheme in Bristol, a programme that is helping ex-service personnel build their own housing.

Such grassroots initiatives, national veterans' charities and government agencies have launched scores of programmes in recent years to help military personnel with everything from housing to job training and advice. Many also connect veterans with veterans to give them a new sense of community and common experience.

Angell says many of the staff at the VA's 300 centres across the United States are former combat veterans who understand the trauma of life under fire.

Bryan Green, 64, a former staff sergeant in the UK's Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, found it hard to adapt to civilian life after a quarter century in the military and suffered a breakdown three years ago. He finds the sense of belonging he finds at Norcare's veterans centre invaluable.

"It takes a long time to re-adjust. Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don't have a clue. And you're not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone. A door has been shut in your life," Green said. "When I can talk about these things with Jordan (Moore) and these guys, people who have been through the same things, it means a lot."

"It takes a long time to re-adjust. Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don't have a clue. And you're not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone"

On Canada's west coast, Phil Quesnelle, recently released from the Canadian Forces on disability after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, sits on the board of the South Mid Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society, which founded a transitional residence devoted to ex-service personnel struggling to find shelter.

He also acts as a peer counsellor, offering others the benefit of his experience.

"It's not a switch you can turn on or off," Quesnelle said. "But people expect you to go back to normal over the span of that 10-hour flight back to Canada. It doesn't work that way and people just don't understand it."

Conscious of the disproportionate numbers of ex-service personnel in the ranks of U.S. unemployed, the VA has hired 400 formerly homeless veterans act as peer counsellors for those trying to find work. They coach on resumes, talk through interviews and are at the end of a telephone to support through the sometimes stressful early days on a new job.

It has also set up a new HR office that helps job-seekers translate their work in the military into civilian job skills along with guidance on applications.

"We're being very proactive because honestly since poverty is the definer of the pathway to homelessness, if at least we can drop that unemployment rate for our newest veterans coming back, that should be a big prevention strategy," said the VA's Angell.

The VA also negotiates with lenders to help veterans who can't afford rent, and says its efforts kept 9 percent more veterans in their homes last year compared to prior years.

"It can be quite expensive to try to get someone who has been chronically homeless for many years off the street and stabilised - compared to what it might take to prevent," Angell said. "If you can help someone with two months' rent, compared to what it would cost in 10 years to help this person get off the street and deal with other health issues."

Hugh Milroy, who served in the first Gulf War and is now CEO of UK charity Veterans Aid believes veterans are actually "citizens-plus" in Britain, with the government as well as 3,000 charities offering support. He worries that too much focus on the homelessness issue may brand veterans as victims.

He agrees the situation is tougher in the United States, in part because of the absence of universal health care and a strong social safety net.

About this story:

In the past year, street papers across Europe and America reported on the struggle ex-soldiers face when they return to civilian life. Following service in Iraq and Afghanistan, both post-traumatic stress and the global recession increase the risk of veterans ending up on the streets. SNS detected this worrying global trend and worked with editors from multiple street papers to establish the scale of the problems and access those affected on the ground. With support from Reuters journalist Sarah Edmonds, SNS produced this Special Report. Street papers in 40 countries are encouraged to publish the piece, to draw attention to this alarming development.

Denmark's support for its returnees is not as pronounced as in some other countries, according to street newspaper Hus Forbi. The Ministry of Defence there puts returning soldiers through a three-month acclimatisation programme. Six months after their return, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire. One-third of veterans never reply.

Donovan of the National Coalition for the Homeless in the United States says the increases in funding under the Obama administration will inevitably reduce the number of veterans on the streets, but he worries Congress may turn its attention elsewhere once the United States has withdrawn from Iraq.

"We're a country suffering from ADD and when we aren't at war we're going to stop thinking about veterans and we're going to think about something else," he said.

The key, he says, is ensuring that enough permanent housing is built via programmes like the VA's Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing programme, where veterans get vouchers for housing organised by local housing authorities in the United States.

"It reminds me of antibiotics," Donovan said. "If you give somebody two doses the first day and another dose and another dose and all of a sudden they start feeling better and you don't give them the last three days, what happens? The person's going to get sick again and when it comes back, it's going to be medically resistant, it's going to be treatment-resistant. That's what happens with these populations. You don't solve the problem. You pour tons of money into it, you pay attention to it, but you don't solve the problem and it becomes socially resistant."

(*Additional reporting by Yvonne Robertson / Megaphone Canada, Adam Forrest / The Big Issue UK, Simon Ankjærgaard / Hus Forbi and Danielle Batist / Street News Service)

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