Veterans at Greater Risk for Homelessness
On a leafy street near downtown Phoenix sits a red-brick building where the only indication of its purpose is a simple sign posted on the door — “Veterans Helping Veterans: MANA House Entrance.”
It’s through this door that some of America’s post-9/11 veterans now live, homeless and broken. They are, experts say, a foreshadowing of more homelessness to come as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars return and try to adjust to their lives back home. The experiences of its residents, people like Keith Munion, Sandra Keeme and Andre Williams, may well become the story of many others.
Munion, a 41-year-old Army specialist, came home to Arizona from Iraq in 2005, got married, bought a house and started a business. Six years later, the house, the spouse and the business were gone.
“I was all set to come here, get a house, be stable, and just be a part of society. And it didn’t work out that way,” said Munion, one of about 20 post-9/11 veterans who live in MANA House, a shelter for homeless veterans.
Keeme, who went to Iraq twice — once in 2003 and once in 2007 — served first as a deck seaman in the Navy and then as a medic in the Marines. She went to war healthy, stable and engaged.
She returned home with a back injury from a field exercise, unstable and single. Turning to alcohol as therapy, Keeme was charged with driving under the influence in April, followed by a speeding ticket in May.
“I had never been in trouble before, so I didn’t know how to process being in trouble,” she said, fighting back tears. “It really hit my self-esteem, my image. It really crumbled who I was.”
She consumed a bottle of sleeping pills and woke up in the intensive care unit of Chandler Regional Hospital, where she stayed for nearly two weeks. After being transferred to the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care System, she checked into MANA House’s female veterans wing, where she is one of 10 women and where she has lived for about a month.
Williams joined the military in 2001 as an eager 11th-grader at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, N.Y. He enrolled in a delayed-entry program, which meant he would go to boot camp immediately after graduation.
“I joined the military because I didn’t see a realistic way to pay for college,” he said.
He became a data systems specialist for the Marines. But after his discharge, Williams joined the Army Reserve and deployed to Camp Taji in Iraq where he worked as a signal systems support specialist.
In August 2010, he came home and moved to Arizona, where he lived with a friend and used GI Bill funds to enroll in courses at Mesa Community College.
Things were going well, until a recent GI Bill change caused Williams to lose his monthly housing allowance during breaks between semesters.
“They changed the GI Bill, so I had to find another source of income; so that’s what I did,” Williams said. “The only thing is, I couldn’t really find anything, so that ended up causing me to lose my place, and enter MANA House.”
Williams, who calls MANA (Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force) House the "best-kept secret of the homeless community," has been living there for nine months. Before MANA House, he stayed at U.S. Vets — another homeless shelter — for about six months.
If the trend for this group of veterans is anything like the past, the full impact of homelessness may not be felt for years.
According to a national report completed by the Institute of Medicine, 76 percent of homeless Vietnam veterans report not becoming homeless for at least 10 years after serving.
“Operation Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans are younger than veterans having served prior to OEF and OIF, and more time might be needed before the full extent of homeless among OEF and OIF veterans is realized,” according to the report.
And, although there are estimates of the number of homeless Afghanistan OEF and Iraq OIF veterans, those counts aren’t necessarily accurate.
“Young veterans aren’t going to be on surface streets. They embed themselves,” said Mellanie Villarreal of the Vet Hunters, a national nonprofit established to locate and house homeless veterans. “That’s why (the Vet Hunters) do what we do. We go off the beaten path. We go into the trenches, the canyons, the washes; the places where veterans are going to go to escape and be away.”
According to the Independent Budget, an analysis of the Department of Veterans Affairs operations produced by independent veterans organizations, about 1.4 million veterans from OEF, OIF and its follow-up, Operation New Dawn, have become eligible for VA health benefits since 2003. Of those, about 12,700 were homeless in 2010, said the Independent Budget for fiscal 2014."
Dennis Culhane, director of research for the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, cites post-traumatic stress disorder as one of the leading causes of homelessness among post-9/11 veterans.
“There is an increased risk (of homelessness) for people who have military-related trauma experiences, like PTSD,” Culhane said. “(This is a risk factor) specific to people exiting the military now.”
Keith Munion, for example, said he came home to what he considered a normal life, until it slowly unraveled.
A ground surveillance systems operator for the U.S. Army and Military Intelligence, Munion spent a year in Baqubah, Iraq.
Despite portraying an image of stability, Munion said he became irritable and aggressive and was almost always angry when he returned home. “I also felt distant from people,” Munion recalled. “I purchased a house in San Tan Valley, so I had to drive 65 miles to get anywhere. I think a lot of that stemmed from me not wanting to deal with people.”
One day, while giving a speech about ethics in education at the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, where he earned a Master of Business Administration in global and business management, Munion lost control and broke into tears. He was diagnosed as having PTSD — a condition found in 10 to 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans, according to the Institute of Medicine’s report.
“I got married during that time and found out I had PTSD,” he said. “I think that’s what caused my divorce and some legal consequences. It hasn’t been pleasant.”
Sandra Keeme experienced similar feelings of isolation and confusion.
“Coming home, I had some anger issues, because it seems like all the things that we fought for and some people died for were being taken for granted by everybody else who stayed home,” she said.
Keeme recalls one instance in particular. She was in a parking lot with her mother and sister when a teenage girl began honking her horn to get to a parking space.
“The fact that this woman was assaulting my mother verbally; I was about to kick her butt. That was a big eye-opener for me,” she said. “You have no idea who I am, what I’ve gone through, and what I’ve sacrificed so you can be who you are. Why did I fight so hard so you could go around, take everything for granted, and not even care?”
While her family is supportive, Keeme said there’s no way they would understand what she’s been through.
“The hardest part is the person that I see myself as isn’t necessarily the same way (my family) sees me. They hear all the good stuff. They say they’re proud of me and they hear all my accomplishments. But I don’t share with them my faults and my defeats. Having to keep all that to myself and only sharing the good stuff…they don’t understand why I struggle,” she explained.
Villarreal of the Vet Hunters said it’s typical for veterans to come home and have feelings of alienation.
“I’ve worked with veterans long enough to know they feel misunderstood and angry. They feel abandoned, like people just don’t understand,” she said.
Besides PTSD, the VA’s Culhane has identified additional risk factors for post-9/11 veteran homelessness. While some factors might have existed before entering the military, like economic disadvantage, others could be developed through their service — such as mental and behavioral health problems.
“It’s likely these conditions existed before they joined the military, but their service didn’t help them acquire skills that would put them in a better position,” Culhane said.
Andre Williams says one of the biggest hardships of his transition back to civilian life was losing the safety net and job security the military provides.
“When you are in the military, you always know where your next paycheck is coming from. You always know that you’re going to get fed. You always know that you’re going to have a roof over your head. You always know that you have somebody on your left and right who is responsible for watching your back,” he said. “The fact is that’s not the way real civilian life works.”
As much as joblessness contributes to homelessness, race also is a factor, as is age.
“Being of African-American race increases the risk (of homelessness) significantly. That’s likely associated with social and economic disadvantage and returning to a community that could be disadvantaged,” Culhane said.
The Institute of Medicine report suggests that younger veterans, including those who deployed to OEF and OIF, are at a higher risk for homelessness.
“Young women have a higher risk (for homelessness) relative to young men and their peers who are non-veterans,” Culhane said.
The Vet Hunters, who have helped house more than 2,000 veterans since they started in January 2011, have come across this trend as well.
“If you ask any person to describe a homeless veteran, they’ll say someone who’s older with a beard and long hair,” Villarreal said. “The homeless veteran now is young. They’re in their 20s. They’re females; they have kids; they have families… they’re living in cars, garages; they’re couch-surfing between friends and family.”
As a homeless female veteran, Sandra Keeme notices a difference between the treatment of homeless women and men.
“I believe that more resources target the male population, especially in terms of places to stay,” she said. “Women aren't expected to be homeless, because (they’re) expected to have more friends and therefore a place to stay.”
Although veteran homelessness likely won’t disappear, Culhane said the VA is working to diminish the risk, highlighting three programs dedicated to eliminating the problem.
One of the main programs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, known as HUD-VASH, helps primarily the chronically homeless by providing housing vouchers and other support.
Though the program is popular, providing more than 47,000 vouchers to homeless veterans between 2008-12, homelessness often doesn’t strike the veteran population until years after their return, so many post-9/11 veterans aren’t yet eligible for vouchers.
Munion is one of them.
“I applied for HUD-VASH and didn’t meet the minimum requirements,” he said. “HUD-VASH is really for Vietnam veterans who can’t get a job, or disabled veterans who can’t work.”
Supportive Services for Veteran Families, called SSVF, aims to rapidly stabilize veterans' housing situations.
It’s more likely to help post-9/11 veterans and their families who are experiencing a short-term housing crisis. Recipients may receive up to four months of rent payments, health and childcare services, and transportation assistance.
Brad Bridwell, board member of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said it’s important to assist veterans who exhibit the early signs of homelessness in order to avoid the chronic stage.
“It starts with somebody struggling just a little bit,” Bridwell said, “If you can just pay somebody’s rent for a month, or if you can just pay part of their utility bills to get them turned back on, it’s just enough for them to right themselves, and never become homeless.”
As of May 2012, the SSVF program had assisted more than 21,000 veterans and their families, according to the Independent Budget. The program received $300 million in grants from the VA this July — triple the amount of a year ago, and is expected to serve about 85,000 people this year, Culhane said.
The Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem program, known as GPD, is a transitional housing program supported by the VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans program. Veterans use this program for up to two years and stay in group housing.
Though the program has been in use since 1994, Culhane says it isn’t the most efficient of the three initiatives.
The push to create these programs came largely after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced in 2009 a goal to end homelessness among veterans within five years.
But Williams said regardless of the government programs, homelessness among veterans likely won’t end. Not because the programs won’t work, but because people don’t want to use them.
“There (are) a lot of people who don’t want to deal with these sorts of facilities, who don’t want to deal with the VA, who don’t want to deal with this type of stuff, so they’re going to continue to be homeless,” he said. “(They) do not want to have these sorts of (programs), because of all the trappings, all the drama, all their past issues.”
To measure the success of these programs, an annual homelessness assessment report is presented to Congress. In a supplement to the report dedicated to veteran homelessness, a point-in-time count of all homeless veterans details the number of veterans who are unsheltered on any given night.
According to the 2012 data, there were 62,000 homeless veterans on any given night in January.
And despite increased efforts to combat veteran homelessness, Vet Hunters President Joe Leal, an Army veteran, said the problem won’t get better until a drastic change is made.
“It’s been hard, but after 10 years, (the governmental agencies) have given all they have. I don’t know how much longer they can keep doing this,” he said. “The system is tired, the system is old, and the system needs new, fresh ideas.”
Keeme said the way homelessness is being handled isn’t effective, and she would like to see more efforts to contact veterans immediately upon their return home.
“I think if they really want to get ahead of it and prevent homelessness in addition to helping those who have gotten to the homeless stage, make a safety net. Make a contact point. If you stop it before it gets bad…an ounce of prevention is better than a cure, sometimes,” she said.
Through his own trials with PTSD and homelessness, Munion agrees something needs to be done to help veterans upon their return home, before it’s too late.
“The war has gone on for so long that people are kind of burnt out, but we need to really care for those veterans when they get back,” he said. “I mean, if it took me six years to recognize that I have PTSD, it’s going to take six or more years after 2015 or 2016 for those veterans to either recognize or for the public to communicate to those veterans the potential of different support organizations to help them when they get out.”
However, despite all of their hardships, things are beginning to turn around for these veterans.
Williams just landed a job with Scottsdale Insurance Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz. Munion finally got all of his legal matters cleared up and is hoping to move overseas to work, and Keeme will be going to court soon to handle the charges associated with her DUI.
“(The Marines) taught me the most important lesson; the one I’d like to shout from the mountaintops to every veteran, every homeless person I ever meet: Do. Not. Give. Up. Do not quit. That’s it. To me, that’s life’s lesson. Don’t quit,” Williams said. “Even if I get over this hill and there’s another hill on the other side, I’ll chug on up that hill. That’s all I can do.”
Peter Haden was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow for News21 this summer.