July 13, 2008 – When Johanna Montalvo, 35, returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, the drug habit she says she acquired in the military got her kicked out of her house. She has since cleaned up. But she is still living in a homeless shelter.
Montalvo is one of at least 100 homeless veterans in New Haven and more than 260,000 homeless veterans across the nation, city and federal officials said.
Her story is not new: one in 70 U.S. veterans has experienced homelessness. In Connecticut, it is one in 30, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
And veterans are more than twice as likely to become homeless than other civilians, statistics released by the Alliance indicate.
Officials predict more veterans will become homeless, especially as thousands return from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they see a new issue emerging: the increasing number of — and lack of services for — homeless women veterans like Montalvo.
In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported a drop in the number of homeless veterans nationally on any given night to 154,000 — suggesting a total number of about 266,000 for this year. Partnerships between the VA and community-based agencies have caused a drop of about 25 percent in the number of homeless veterans on any given night since 2003, the VA reports.
But the numbers go against the upward trend in homeless veterans rates that previous years suggest. National statistics show that in 2006, the most recent year with reliable data, 3.3 percent of all Connecticut veterans were homeless, up from 3.1 percent in 2005.
The percentage was more than double the 2006 national homeless rate of 1.4 percent of all veterans, which had increased steadily since 2004. In 2006, estimates put the number of homeless veterans at 330,000.
Although many experts stress no reliable studies have been published with the number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some estimate that number could be as high as 10,000 to 15,000, or about 1.3 percent of all soldiers who have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. You can also check with site www.percentagecalculator.co.uk
The percentage has rapidly approached the 1.4 percent average homeless veteran rate in seven years, while in other recent U.S. wars, the percentages start nearing the average rate in the span of 10 to 20 years, statistics from the National Alliance to End Homelessness suggest.
“For Vietnam vets, it took nine, 10 or 11 years for them to really be homeless,” said Amanda LeClair, executive director for Homes for the Brave, a Bridgeport transitional living facility that tends to veterans. “But what we are finding with younger vets is that they’re reaching that point a lot faster.”
Dr. Laurie Harkness, director of the VA Errera Community Center in West Haven added: “We have vets now coming back a year later and are already homeless.”
A November 2007 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness also suggested several risk factors that could cause an increase in Iraq and Afghanistan homeless veterans, including more difficult adjustments to civilian life because of longer tours of duty, compared to veterans of previous wars.
LeClair said there are not many young vets showing up at her agency. But soon, she said, “those numbers will rise.”
In May, 52 new homeless veterans sought help at the VA Errera Community Center, while last year agency officials had to send out teams to find the veterans.
“There is definitely something peculiar going on,” Harkness said.
Factors that predict homelessness among veterans are the same as those for the general population. Scarce affordable housing and difficulty in finding and keeping competitive jobs are the two main factors, according to Joy Kiss, executive director of Homes for the Brave.
“The job pool is already small,” said Donald J., 48., a vet who has been living at the Emergency Shelter Services Inc., formerly Immanuel Baptist in New Haven, since he was released in June after five years in prison for drug-related charges. “It is even harder as an ex-con.”
Incarcerations also can increase veterans’ difficulty in finding jobs and their likelihood of becoming homeless. According to a 2004 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 10 percent of prisoners in the country report having been in the military.
“The average stay here is creeping toward a year,” said Allison Cunningham, executive director of Columbus House shelter in New Haven, where five beds are paid for by the VA. “The cost of living is high and the waiting list for Section 8 (housing) is long.”
Those factors are further complicated by substance abuse and mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which often originate in or are exacerbated by the service.
PTSD is one of the most devastating of those. “There is hyper vigilance, but if you are driving down I-95 looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) you will get (hurt),” said Kate Kelly, a social worker for the homeless team at the VA’s Errera Community Center.
Many choose not to turn to the VA, trying to avoid the stigma still connected to mental illness. “There are men and women out there who don’t want to associate with the VA,” said Gabor Kautzner, an Iraq veteran who works at an outreach program for combat veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan. “They want to be cops or firefighters and you can’t with a history of mental illness.”
“When I came back I isolated myself a lot because I didn’t want people to think I was crazy,” said James Murphy of Bridgeport, who served in combat in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970.
Murphy disconnected from his wife and son and spent six months on the streets of New York City before he returned to Connecticut and was diagnosed with PTSD.
Although the military debriefs soldiers upon discharge, many of them leave unaware of all of their benefits.
“The VA does a good job of getting the information out there. But the timing and the way it’s done misses the point,” said Kautzner. “They shove everything down your throat that you’re supposed to do.”
THE DRUG CONNECTION
Veterans also face an additional challenge in the prolonged separation from support of family and close friends. That was how Montalvo, a native of Puerto Rico, said she got involved with drugs. Away from her family in Iraq, she gave in to peer pressure to fit in.
“I would go out with other soldiers and they would offer me coke and insist,” she said.
Montalvo, who had never experimented with drugs before, although both her parents were addicts, soon started using cocaine on weekends.
When her father died, Montalvo started using crack.
“Soldiers would rent rooms to get drunk and high,” she said.
Montalvo’s drug use got her in trouble and she served a year and a half in military confinement.
Montalvo is not an exception. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, about 70 percent of homeless veterans suffer from substance abuse. There is also a considerable overlap between substance abuse and mental health problems.
A veteran who would only give his initials as I.F. was arrested at age 17 for smoking marijuana on the Waterbury Green. The officers gave him an ultimatum: jail or Vietnam. He served four years in Vietnam. I.F., now 54, has struggled with addiction throughout his life. He has been homeless since 2000, and has sought VA help on and off.
A VA-endorsed 2008 Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group report predicts an increase in homeless female veterans.
Women make up about 4 percent of homeless veterans. But counting them is not easy.
New Haven City Hall Special Projects Director John Huettner — an expert on New Haven homelessness — said he has received calls from veterans who are mothers with dependent children looking for housing help.
According to some studies, women veterans are up to four times as likely to become homeless.
Experts point to a slew of reasons why they are more susceptible to homelessness than male veterans.
Women tend to earn less money, for instance. According to the National Alliance report, female veterans are more likely than male veterans to experience a severe housing cost burden.
And, “military sexual trauma rates are higher among women,” added Kelly. Also, because the military only consists of 15-20 percent women, there are fewer women veterans and fewer services available. There are many more transitional houses for males, which will cause a gap when more women veterans start returning. This may pose some problems for support agencies.
“Many homeless women find couches (with family or friends)… and it’s unbearable for some with PTSD being in open spaces or shelters,” said Kelly. The VA has women’s groups and special services for women, including access to an ob-gyn, but housing for women is scarce.
“There is always a waiting list for women,” said Montalvo, who had applied to several different housing facilities before moving to Beth-El Shelter in Milford temporarily. Grants are helping the VA, along with other local organizations, prepare for an influx of women veterans in the future.
The federal VA has 11 sites with specialized case management, outreach and residential care programs for homeless women veterans. And for the general homeless veteran population, VA officials have many support programs in terms of funding and health care.
But VA officials said that more can be done. According to the CHALENG report, VA officials said that one way they could improve services for Iraq and Afghanistan homeless veterans is creating more programs for women veterans and their families.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs says it will be able to handle the problem of homelessness: “This is a national tragedy that can … be addressed,” said a release issued by the West Haven’s Veterans Affairs medical center. But the Department of Veterans Affairs provides services for only about one-third of the total homeless veteran population each year, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Aside from substance-abuse treatment, the VA offers veterans myriad other services. The VA reached out to Vietnam veteran James Murphy when he was homeless and unemployed.
“I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what until I came (to the VA) and was diagnosed with PTSD,” he said. After receiving treatment and making significant progress, Murphy got back on his feet and was offered a job from the VA as a peer counselor. He now runs treatment groups for more than 180 veterans.
The VA “doesn’t want what happened to the Vietnam veterans to happen to them,” said Kautzner, citing the VA’s policy of having a follow-up schedule of 30 days, 60 days, 90 days and 180 days.
Homes for the Brave in Bridgeport reaches out for homeless veterans who haven’t yet sought help. After they leave the shelter, specialists follow up to ensure a good transition.
“The problem that the VA is running into is that the services are only as effective as the next step,” said Harkness. “Even after transitional housing, they need support. The shortfall is funding.”
“There are just not enough appropriate places to house our homeless veterans,” a statement issued by the Errera care center says.
Numerous local organizations are in the process of building more housing for veterans. Homes for the Brave currently has one transitional all-male housing facility and plans to build a similar one for women. Also, Columbus House recently received a $22,500 grant to renovate a building on Howard Avenue for homeless veterans. Yale University is also building one ownership unit and one rental unit for Iraq veterans in collaboration with Common Ground.
The city of New Haven is working in cooperation with these programs using the Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.
The issue is being recognized on a national level as well. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill last week called the Homes and Heroes Act; it would allocate $200 million for housing and services for veterans and would require 20,000 rental vouchers a year for low-income housing for veterans. It would also authorize $1 million for grants to nonprofit groups, which can provide housing for veterans.
However, the Connecticut VA only has enough beds for 2 percent of the homeless veteran population, partially because of the lack of funding.
“We are trying to ask companies who made money off the war to help the veterans now,” said Harkness, who noted there is a sign at her center that says, “The price of freedom is visible here.”