During a forum on homelessness at the Lyceum in Hartford on Monday, a Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary cited a troubling trend of homelessness among military veterans and offered her plan to combat the problem.
As he introduced her, U.S. Rep. John Larson called Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tammy Duckworth an American hero. Duckworth lost both of her legs and the use of one of her arms after the Blackhawk helicopter she was piloting was shot down over a field in Iraq. The forum was organized by the Partnership for Strong Communities, a group whose goal is to eliminate homelessness among Connecticut military veterans within five years. Duckworth, who uses prosthetic legs, entered the forum using a cane and reportedly is flying again. But not all veterans are able to recover from combat injuries as well.
Duckworth said that veterans make up 12 percent of the nation’s homeless population, but she cited some potential reasons why that number is higher than the general population’s 8 percent share of homelessness.
Most of the homeless veterans have a set of specific problems that often make finding reliable income difficult, she said. Many have long-term mental health issues. Those may include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, or Bipolar disorder, she said.
Many also have medical issues of which they may not even be aware, she said. Some veterans who were deployed in combat received concussive head injuries, which can have long-term or permanent repercussions, she said. To identify veterans with head injuries, the Veterans Administration recently began screening all veterans, even if they come in for a sprained ankle, for head injuries, Duckworth said.
It also is common for veterans to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in an effort to deal with those problems, she said.
Another contributing factor is veterans who become homeless typically do so with less support than most. Generally, about 40 percent of the people who become homeless do so without support from family or friends. For veterans, that number is around 90 percent, Duckworth said.
“So where is that network? Where is that village that takes care of the individual? In the case of our homeless veterans it simply isn’t there,” she said.
On the national level, Duckworth has been trying to get that network into place. Since assuming her post at the Department of Veteran Affairs, she has watched the number of homeless veterans in the country drop from 131,000 to 76,000, she said. Her next benchmark is set at 55,000, but Duckworth said her ultimate goal is to see that number drop to zero.
“We are all dishonored when a veteran sleeps on the same streets he or she has defended,” she said.
There are currently 462 homeless veterans living in the state, according to statistics from the Department of Veteran Affairs. Larson said there are now more homeless Vietnam veterans than the number of Americans who died in that entire war, but Duckworth also noted that the homeless veteran demographic is changing. Instead of generally dealing with men in their 50s, the population has become younger and now includes more women.
“There are, any night of the week, when you go to bed tonight, just under 7,000 homeless female veterans on the streets of this great nation,” Duckworth said, adding that women veterans tend to bring children with them into homelessness.
A five-person panel consisting of members of the military community and veterans outreach programs worked on generating ideas to get that number down to zero in Connecticut.
The panel seemed to agree that one way to more effectively address the problem would be to pool resources and develop an inclusive directory for veterans to more easily connect with available services. It was noted that the state has been recognized for its quality veteran services, but those services come from different organizations that aren’t always aware of each other.
The system could be streamlined so that both veterans and those administering the services know what is available.
Brig. Gen Daniel J. McHale said the room was filled with people who work with veterans from different state, federal, and civilian organizations who aren’t familiar with the services offered by their colleagues.
“You’re really not aware of what we do and how we do it and we’re not aware of the different assets and resources that are here. I’m sure that we could cover any kind of situation that could happen with a service member or a family member, if we only knew what to do and who to call,” he said.
McHale said he frequently encounters veterans dealing with problems that could have been easily resolved or avoided altogether, had they only known of the applicable services available.
The panelists said that the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing and Department of Housing and Urban Development voucher programs have been highly effective in curbing veteran homelessness. That program has provided 315 vouchers in Connecticut, Duckworth said.
Ultimately, veterans should be highly employable, Duckworth said. Few other classes of workers are accustomed to guaranteeing the quality of their work with their lives, she said.
The same mechanic who worked on her helicopters also flew with her on the same aircraft, she said.
“Who wouldn’t want that in an employee?” she asked. “How many of you, when you wrote out a help wanted ad, were able to put in there, ‘needed—clerk,’ or, ‘needed—receptionist, must be willing to guarantee quality of work with life?’”