(CNSNews.com) - Government figures show that former members of the U.S. military comprise less than 13 percent of the American adult population, yet veterans account for roughly 33 percent of the nation's homeless adult population.
But those figures, obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs, yield different explanations for the causes related to the high number of homeless veterans.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans charges that the government is not providing enough help to ex-servicemen and women transitioning to civilian life. But the government denies that there is a "causal relationship" between military service and homeless veterans.
"On any given day, as many as 200,000 veterans (male and female) are living on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year," according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website. The Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates that about 47 percent of the homeless veterans served in Vietnam.
But while the V.A. acknowledges that "many homeless veterans served in combat in Vietnam and suffer from [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]," it adds that "epidemiologic studies do not suggest that there is a causal connection between military service, service in Vietnam, or exposure to combat and homelessness among veterans."
Family background, the lack of a support network, and personal characteristics are more powerful indicators of whether a veteran will become homeless, according to the government agency.
Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, told Cybercast News Service that the military needs to do more for the men and women departing the service. She criticized the Department of Defense's program of Preseparation Counseling.
"That process turns out not to be mandatory," Boone said. "The check-off list that they have to fill out, they can choose to opt out of that process ... so the Department of Defense doesn't have to provide them counseling."
The check-off list to which Boone referred is the DD 2648 Preseparation Counseling Checklist issued by the Department of Defense. It is supposed to be completed no later than 90 days before service members leave.
"[It] doesn't have housing, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, which are issues that can lead to homelessness," Boone said.
The list does direct soon-to-be veterans to job websites, such as USA jobs and Troops to Teachers programs, and it offers the option of the Transition Assistance programs and workshops (TAP). The latter, which is sponsored by the Department of Labor in conjunction with the Department of Defense, includes a three day workshop where "two-and-a-half days deal with employment, and half-a -day around VA benefits," Boone said.
TAP is also not mandatory, Boone said. "Some base commanders do not even make it available because they don't want their workforce out for three days, or they will only allow people to do it on their non-duty time," she charged.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most common mental illness in veterans, producing nightmares and other stress that can lead to suicide, Boone said. She also blamed the military's "macho environment" for discouraging veterans from seeking treatment for the problem.
"The military is providing support and counseling in very limited instances ... It depends on the leadership of that unit," Boone said.
Among the homeless veterans that Boone's group tracks, 76 percent of them "now have mental health and/or substance abuse issues," she said. "They're sick and they need more long term help." She added that approximately 11 percent of current homeless service members experiencing substance abuse problems cite their time in the military as a cause for the abuse.
But mental health and substance abuse are not popular topics in the military, according to Boone. "If somebody identifies that they have mental health or substance abuse issues while they are still on active duty, there are consequences for that in the military ... They don't want to talk about it," she said.
Boone said there is some good news, "that people are aware that there are homeless veterans," but she added that most people believe the homeless veteran population represents a "small minority, derelicts, and that's not true. That is true for some, but not true for all."
In January the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans polled 19 organizations serving homeless veterans and discovered that more than 300 veterans from the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were seeking help. "In the next couple years, we will have a lot of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are not prepared," Boone said.
One active duty soldier in Iraq has already asked Boone's group for help, stating in an email that he expects to be homeless once he returns to the U.S., Boone said. "Many [veterans] join the military right out of high school and they've never had another job, so they don't have a job to come back to," she said.
A telephone call to the Department of Veterans Affairs, seeking comment for this article, was not returned. But Boone said VA is "much better than it used to be, and that's because the advocacy community has mandated that every VA medical center have a homeless coordinator."
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