Vets of Iraq, Afghan Wars Surging Into Homeless Shelters

After Kevin returned from Iraq, he spent most nights lying awake in his Army barracks in Hawaii, clutching a 9mm handgun under his pillow, bracing for an attack that never came.

His fits of sleep brought nightmares of the wounded and dying troops whom Kevin, a combat medic, had treated over 16 months of suicide attacks and roadside bombings. He kept thinking about an attack that killed 13 of his comrades. He hated himself for having survived.

Soon he was drinking so heavily that the Army discharged him. He moved back in with his parents in Narragansett, R.I., and drank even more, until they asked him to leave. Less than two years after he returned, Kevin became one of a growing number of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are now homeless.

"I lived in my car, at the Wal-Mart parking lot," said Kevin, who asked that his last name not be published because he is considering reenlisting. He has been staying at a homeless shelter in Northampton since early July.

Kevin's tailspin encapsulates a little-researched consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As more troops return from deployments, social workers and advocates expect the number of the homeless to increase, flooding the nation's veterans' shelters, which are already overwhelmed by homeless veterans from other wars.

"It's a major problem that's not going away anytime soon," said Cheryl Beversdorf, director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, who estimates that hundreds, perhaps thousands of troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are living in shelters. Kevin's story illustrates the lagging response of overburdened government agencies to the needs of troops returning from wars, said Jack Downing, who runs the shelter where Kevin and four other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are staying.

"The general public believes that when a vet comes home, he's well taken care of," Downing said. "That's a horrible misunderstanding."

No one keeps track of how many of the 750,000 troops who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 are homeless. Peter Dougherty, director of homeless programs for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, said 300 veterans of these conflicts have asked the agency for help finding shelter in the last 30 months. Beversdorf's agency has helped 1,200 homeless veterans of the current wars.

This reflects only a fraction of the total number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, said Amy Fairweather, who works with Iraq war veterans at Swords to Plowshares, a private organization based in San Francisco that assists veterans. Last year, her agency's five shelters in California helped 250 such veterans, she said.

She said it is impossible to know how many veterans have not asked for help and are "crashing on their friends' couch, in a car, in a park … [or are] people who live in a church."

Social workers say combat trauma is responsible for the plunge into homelessness for many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unable to cope, veterans turn to alcohol and drugs, lose their jobs and the support of their family and friends, and end up on the streets, said Larry Fitzmaurice, whose homeless shelter in Boston is currently providing beds to seven veterans of the Iraq war.

Mental problems "really interfere with the ability to maintain a stable relationship, to maintain a secure employment," Fairweather said.

Army studies have found that up to 30 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder.

Dougherty and other specialists who work with homeless veterans say the pattern of homelessness has changed. The approximately 70,000 veterans of the war in Vietnam who became homeless usually spent between five and 10 years trying to readjust to civilian life before winding up in the streets, he said. Veterans of today's wars who become homeless end up with no place to live within 18 months after they return from war, according to Dougherty.

Dougherty said the Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to recognize and address combat trauma and help the new generation of veterans readjust in civilian life. But he acknowledged that many veterans "become homeless because there is not a support system."

"There are more services available to veterans returning today, but I still don't think there's enough," said Allison Alaimo, who works at the shelter for homeless veterans operated by Massachusetts Veterans Inc. in Worcester. Alaimo said her shelter has hosted a few veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

Joe, who also stays at the Northampton shelter, sustained a traumatic brain injury during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he manned a 155mm howitzer for the Third Infantry Division.

"My first time killing somebody was very devastating," he recalled, saying that he fired at a minivan carrying a family of 12 unarmed civilians. "Just one woman survived."

Joe said he spent his first year back drinking, abusing drugs, and going AWOL from his military base at Fort Stewart, Ga. He said he was trying to shut off the horrible fits of screaming and violence brought on by his brain injury and his memories of the most disturbing moments of his war.

"Two months after I'm back from Iraq I'm shooting heroin," said Joe, staring into space at the shelter, where he has been staying for three months. Since he was discharged from the Army in 2004, he has been living in shelters and abandoned houses and staying with relatives and friends. He stole and dealt drugs to support his habit. He asked that his full name not be used because he has a criminal record.

Kevin said that at least two of his friends have become homeless since his deployment with the 25th Infantry Division ended in 2005. One stayed in Hawaii, "because you've got beaches you can sleep on," Kevin said. The other, he said, moved to the Salt Lake City area, "because out there, if you're homeless, you get meals, you get money" from Mormon charities.

As the wars continue, the number of homeless veterans is "going to radically swell," Downing said. Downing and others who work with homeless veterans said the government is not prepared to assist those troops; a recent report by the Government Accountability Office said there are some 200,000 homeless veterans and only 15,000 beds for them at shelters. At least 9,600 more beds are needed, the report said. No government agency provides permanent housing for homeless veterans, said Beversdorf.

"We're just the fallout, you know?" Joe said in the garden of the shelter. Under the trees, several homeless Vietnam War veterans stood in the shade, smoking in silence. "We fall through the cracks."

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