Homeless Veterans Need More Assistance
The national inventory of homeless residential programs includes an estimated 611,292 year-round beds distributed fairly evenly as follows: 211,451 beds in emergency shelters (35 percent), 211,205 beds in transitional housing (35 percent), and 188,636 beds in permanent housing (31 percent). California has about 12.15 percent of the U.S. inventory. Eighty-one percent of the beds were available to the general population with 2.8 percent (11,706 beds) specifically designated for veterans.
Homelessness is rising among veterans because of high living costs, the lack of adequate funds, and many are struggling with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, exacerbated by a lack of adequately-funded support systems. When soldiers return home ill or suffering from PTSD, they are often treated by private health care companies -- operating at a profit -- such as Health Net and IAP Worldwide Services, Inc. Allegedly, this privatization has contributed to the deterioration of care. The VA has been severely criticized for the diagnoses of wounded veterans with a personality disorder, instead of PTSD, thus denying them disability pay and medical benefits. More than 22,500 soldiers have been suspiciously dismissed with personality disorders, rather than PTSD. By doing so, the military saves money in disability pay and medical care over the veterans' lifetimes.
This leaves the problem to the local communities. That’s where organizations such as Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based, not-for-profit organization are vital. Swords to Plowshares provides counseling and case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The VA estimates that there are 2,075 homeless veterans in San Francisco, with 533 of these 2,075 classified as "chronically homeless." Chronically homeless is defined as an individual with a disabling condition who has been continually homeless for a year or more or has had four or more episodes of homelessness over the past three years. The VA asked San Francisco's homeless veterans about their needs. Most of the expressed needs were similar to those of San Francisco's general homeless population: detoxification treatment (10 percent); treatment for emotional and psychiatric problems (8 percent); treatment for dual diagnosis (10 percent); eduation (17 percent); job training (10 percent); help with SSI/SSD processing (23 percent); help with VA/disability pension problems (23 percent); emergency shelter (11 percent); half-way house or transitional housing (23 percent); and permanent housing (66 percent).
How many of San Francisco's homeless veterans, discharged for personality disorders rather than PTSD, would be off the homeless roles if they had disability pay and VA medical care? While not every homeless veteran was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder rather than PTSD, it seems obvious that the VA could do more to reach its stated "goal to provide excellence in patient care, veterans' benefits and customer satisfaction."
According to the VA, San Francisco has 400 emergency beds and could use 100 more; has 110 transitional beds and could use 70 more; and has 415 permanent housing beds and could use 200 more. This is the number of beds that veterans as well as the general homeless population can access. The number of emergency beds, transitional beds, and permanent housing beds has declined or stayed relatively stable over the past year in San Francisco.
Through the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH) Program, the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) recently received 105 Section 8 housing choice vouchers, which will hopefully move 105 homeless veterans into housing, (HUD awarded funding for 10,000 vouchers nationallly.) With a Secition 8 housing chioice voucher, the veteran is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the SFHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. However, given the long waits for housing and San Francisco’s hight rental rates, it remains to be seen how many veterans will be imeediately served by this program .
As a matter of political reality, this administration, Congress, or the courts are not ready to establish a right to housing, not even for a specific subgroup such as veterans. Even if there was such a right, the underlying root of homelessness needs to be addressed. That is, the de-funding of federal affordable housing programs since the early1980s. The federal government’s housing assistance for veterans has largely been limited to guaranteeing home mortgage loans; realistically homeownership is still too expensive for many veterans, especially in the Bay Area. Thus, there is a need for a many more Section 8 vouchers nationwide.
Despite cries of "support our troops" whenever Congress or the public demands Iraq funding accountability or an Iraq withdrawal timeline, the need for housing assistance for veterans far exceeds the federal funding for such programs. More needs to be done.
Ralph E. Stone is a Vietnam veteran living in San Francisco