November 3, 2008 – Cheryl Beversdorf, RN, MHS, MA, is on a mission. A veteran Army nurse from the Vietnam era, Beversdorf has a passion to serve the country’s veterans who experience a disproportionate rate of homelessness.
While only 9% of the nation’s population serves in the military, 23% of the homeless are vets, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Beversdorf is concerned about the public’s mistaken image of homeless veterans, which is often of someone holding a cardboard sign and asking for a handout or help. Although those people may or may not be homeless vets, they are more often less visible and can be found sleeping under bridges, in alleys and abandoned buildings, staying with relatives or friends, or living in shelters or other community-based organizations.
Beversdorf is president and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization with a goal of ending homelessness with dignity among the nation’s veterans. The NCHV (www.nchv.org) is a clearinghouse of resources and services.
These include information about counseling services, homeless veterans service providers and VA medical centers (which all have homeless veteran coordinators), and organizations such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America. The organization welcomes phone calls from veterans (800-VET-HELP).
“So often there is the assumption that the Department of Veterans Affairs will take care of veterans, and that’s not necessarily true,” says Beversdorf.
In fact, the VA reaches only 25% of homeless veterans, according to NCHV, which also works to shape public policy and promote collaboration that will benefit homeless veterans.
Although there is still a long way to go, this September the VA announced grants to fund community groups to create 1,526 beds for homeless veterans. Monies also will support services such as transportation to training programs and healthcare services.
“Health issues are a primary factor that puts veterans at risk for homelessness,” says Beversdorf. These include disabling injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, 45% of homeless veterans have mental illness, and half have substance-abuse problems.
“Many among the current homeless veteran population served during the Vietnam era and are aging, suffer from chronic illness and substance abuse, and are unable to work,” says Beversdorf. She adds that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk, too.
Economic issues also take their toll and contribute to homelessness. Unemployment after discharge can be a problem, especially if veterans have not learned work skills in the military that are transferable to civilian life. Military reservists risk losing their full-time jobs because of multiple deployments, and the current mortgage and foreclosure crisis makes it more difficult for veterans to obtain and keep safe, affordable housing.
Beversdorf says nurses can play an important role in improving the health and well-being of homeless veterans:
• Be aware of the issues veterans face.
• Ask patients if they are veterans as a part of their history. Understand anyone who has served in the military is a veteran, not just those who saw combat.
• Refer veterans to the NCHV (www.NCHV.org or 800-VET-HELP) and the VA (www.va.gov).
• Refer homeless or unemployed veterans to a local Stand-Down event (www.nchv.org/page.cfm?id=122). These events are community-based intervention programs that bring together veterans in a single location for one to three days and provide access to resources, such as medical and dental care, employment opportunities, haircuts, shaves, food, and legal assistance.