Number of homeless vets is small, but growingby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Veterans' advocates say they're concerned about a growing number of homeless veterans. In its latest one-day, snapshot count of Minnesota's homeless population, the Wilder Foundation found 17 men who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and now have no place to live. Three years ago, they identified just one.
Experts fear the type of physical and mental trauma U.S. troops are being exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan could make war on terrorism vets more likely to end up homeless than Americans who have served in other wars, including Vietnam.
St. Paul, Minn. — To be clear, even before Andrew shipped out for Iraq with the Minnesota Army National Guard, he had problems.
The Marines kicked him out for alcoholism 10 years ago, before he joined the Guard. And last summer, a little more than a year after returning from his Iraq deployment, when he found himself living in his car, it wasn't the first time Andrew had been homeless.
Andrew, 31, doesn't want his last name used. He's still in the military.
"When I came back from Iraq, I found that adjusting back to my job after a year, I was having problems with my job and I kind of figured that I was going to get fired," Andrew says.
When he got back from Iraq in the spring of 2004, Andrew worked as a live-in coordinator in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. He didn't want to talk about or hear about the war anymore. He even avoided the news. But Andrew says a co-worker seemed to constantly bring it up, despite his pleas.
"I'd have nightmares where I am physically beating down my co-worker. I'd wake up in cold sweats," Andrew says. "I would wake up, drink just so I could sleep. And I ultimately was like -- I'd be drinking on the job."
Andrew did lose that job, and another one soon after.
Andrew shares his story sitting in a small group home on the campus of the Minneapolis Veterans Administration hospital. He lives in building 47 with 12 other veterans. They all have substance abuse problems, and without the shelter, they would be homeless.
Andrew fidgets and shifts in his chair and sometimes loses track of his thoughts -- all symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he no longer enjoys things he used to, like watching Minnesota Twins baseball games.
Andrew describes himself as feeling locked in his own mind, and he readily acknowledges having a hair-trigger temper.
"And this is what gets me in trouble a lot," Andrew says. "The anger issues."
In Iraq, Andrew says he often supervised and worked along side Iraqi laborers, whom he intimidated into doing their jobs.
"Scream at them. Threaten them. You know, point the weapon," Andrew says. "'Get your butt back here,' you know. That was the only way to deal with them."
Andrew says that way of treating people followed him home. But his temper ultimately brought him help.
In September 2006, police in the suburb of Champlin pulled him over for a faulty tail light. They discovered that he didn't have a valid driver's license or insurance, and they began impounding his car.
"I was pretty enraged. In fact, I was down to my last rope," says Andrew.
The police handcuffed Andrew after he threatened to jump off a bridge. He narrowly avoided the jolt of a police taser stun gun.
"Like I said, they were taking my home away, you know, my vehicle. It was embarrassing, because I had never gotten really in trouble with the law," says Andrew.
After he was arrested, he ended up in a treatment program for veterans, and eventually entered the residential program at the Minneapolis VA.
Greg Owen, the director of the Wilder Foundation's homeless survey, says in most respects the 17 homeless Iraq-Afghanistan veterans identified in the statewide count hold traits similar to other homeless veterans.
They tend to come from more stable backgrounds than the homeless population as a whole. They're more likely to have education beyond high school, and less likely to have been institutionalized.
What struck Owen about the new homeless vets was the percentage that reported problems with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We see that their rate of this post-traumatic stress disorder is twice the rate of the other veterans in our sample, and four times the rates of the general population of homeless adults," Owen explains. "This is a significant concern because this represents a disorder that makes it difficult for people to get along with others, control their emotions. And it's difficult for them to maintain jobs and housing with this disorder untreated."
Three years ago, the Wilder Foundation survey found just one Iraq-Afghanistan war vet -- compared to the most recent survey's 17. Owen expects the number will continue to increase.
Veterans' advocates are trying to figure out how they can help members of the military from becoming homeless as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. And they're concerned that a relatively high level of PSTD and brain injury among these new vets will increase their chances of ending up on the streets.
San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares is a nonprofit which began providing services to homeless Vietnam veterans in the mid-1970s. It's now pulling together research on vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in hopes of getting in front of what they fear could be a surge in homeless vets.
"What we're finding -- which is very disturbing -- is that the Iraq veterans are falling into homelessness at a far faster pace than their predecessors have been," says the organization's Amy Fairweather. "We can attribute this to a number of risk factors -- the incredibly high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, the enormous rates of traumatic brain injury."
Research shows PTSD leaves victims sometimes unable to maintain relationships and keep jobs, in part, because of reckless behavior and substance abuse.
Traumatic brain injury can lead to a wide range of physical, cognitive and emotional problems. Both, advocates say, are recipes for becoming homeless.
Andrew says he hasn't had a drink since last fall, and is working to move ahead in other areas as well.
"I got a lot of issues that I need to resolve, I mean I really do," Andrew admits. "My temper wound up flaring up yesterday and I could have gotten kicked out, and I'm grateful that I did not."
And there's the isolation. Just days before this interview, Andrew didn't even recognize his own mother. She happened to be riding on the same city bus as him.
- All Things Considered, 03/14/2007, 5:22 p.m.