December 5, 2007 – “Support our troops.” How often have we heard this Bush administration mantra whenever Congress or the public demands Iraq funding accountability or an Iraq withdrawal timeline? Yet, once the troops become veterans, too often they are woefully neglected. In a 2006 survey, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 26% of homeless people are veterans. VA further estimates that at least 195,827 veterans are homeless in the United States, a conservative estimate, 49,724 in California, and 3,000 in San Francisco, with 1,356 of these 3,000 classified as “chronically homeless.” The VA defines “chronically homeless” 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 National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 89,553 to 467,877 veterans were at risk of homelessness, meaning that they were below the poverty level and paying more than 50 percent of household income on rent.
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 support systems.
The VA has been severely criticized for diagnosing wounded veterans with a personality disorder, instead of PTSD, thus denying them disability pay and medical benefits. In the past six years, more than 22,500 soldiers have been suspiciously dismissed with personality disorders, rather than PTSD. By doing so, the military is saving an estimated $8 billion in disability pay and an estimated $4.5 billion in medical care over their lifetimes. (These figures are from “How Specialist Town Lost His Benefits” by Joshua Kors, citing Harvard professor Linda Bilmes’ study, in The Nation (April 9, 2007)).
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 should do more to reach its stated “goal to provide excellence in patient care, veterans’ benefits and customer satisfaction.”
Passage of the FY 2008 HUD appropriations bill would be a modest start. It includes $75 million for nearly 7,500 HUD-VA Supported Housing vouchers for homeless and disabled veterans. Unfortunately, President Bush has threatened to veto this bill because it exceeds his spending request. It is shameful that we can spend $473.4+ billion conducting the Iraq war, but not an additional $75 million for war casualties.
Ralph Stone is a Vietnam veteran living in San Francisco. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.