From War to Sleeping on the Street

On Friday afternoon at two of the four corners of the junction between 17th and K streets, in downtown Washington DC, there was a vagabond asking for money. The two, middle-aged men, one white and one black, were veterans of war, and this was manifested in posters and loudly to some of the passers-by who passed by them. It is not a surprising sight on the streets of the United States capital.

One of them is called Ben, around forty years of age and served eight years in the Army, divided between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In general, he is evasive and with little desire to tell his life and the tragic journey that led him to now have to ask for money in the street. “War is never a good experience, nobody gives a shit,” he says when asked about his experience.

With the lost look, Ben explains that he tried to resort to the economic aid that the Department of Veterans Affairs offers, but that he realized that “it was not worth it” for the excessive bureaucratic procedures involved. “Most veterans with PTSD do not have the patience to do it,” he says.

PTSD is the acronym in English of a post-traumatic stress disorder. 50% of homeless veterans in the United States suffer from severe mental illness, according to data from the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans (NCHV), some of which have not yet served in combat.

70% have substance abuse problems, whether alcohol or drugs. Ex-soldiers represent 12% of the total adult homeless in the country. Among the male population, they represent 20%. And their poverty levels are higher than the average among the most populated family units.

Shinseki, who almost everyone in the assembly was praised, took advantage of his last public act to extol the programs implemented by his department, since he took office in 2009, to improve the socioeconomic status of ex-soldiers, a very collective revered among American public opinion and disputed by political parties.

“Today we know better the factors that contribute to not having a home: depression, insomnia, pain, disorders due to the use of substances and failed relationships. Now we can focus on specific treatments, “he said.

Although this is not a new problem, most of the plans to combat this scourge have been promoted in recent decades. The Administration currently offers healthcare to some 150,000 homeless veterans and financial assistance to some 40,000.

In parallel, public-private partnerships have been developed to provide accommodation, which, according to the NCHV, has contributed to reducing the number of homeless veterans by 70% since 2005. However, it is estimated that 1.4 million ex-soldiers run the risk of running out of houses and falling into that fateful spiral.

Undoubtedly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade have had a definite effect on this drama and have placed it at the center of the political debate as the number of suicides among ex-soldiers has skyrocketed.

The majority, 41%, are people between 31 and 50 years old. And as in many other areas in the US, the race is also sadly a factor of inequality: about 40% of homeless veterans are black or Hispanic, despite assuming, respectively, 10.4% and 3.4 % of the ex-combatant population.

Many of the attendees at the three-day assembly of the NCHV were people -veteran or not- involved in associations of ex-soldiers or political leaders who sought to make contacts and learn the best practices to face this challenge.

One of them was the picturesque Lester Abele - he served two years in the Vietnam War - who came to the forum, dressed in military clothing, to get loans from the government to expand his veterans’ aid association based in the state of the United States. Ohio in 2005.

Their association assists ex-soldiers to cope with the abundant paperwork necessary to qualify for some of the public aid. Abele receives a subsidy of 800 dollars a month from the Department of Veterans for having a mild chronic injury in the back, to which another 1,200 of the Social Security are added.

He also served in Vietnam, a year and a half, Darell Harbor, with another program to help veterans in Texas and who came to the Congress to learn about best practices, although some are intangible. “One of the biggest barriers to breaking is the pride soldiers have when they return home. They are afraid to ask for help, “he said. In this case, he recalled, no one helped him prepare for a return to his city life and criticizes that now, 40 years later, only be done during a specific period.

But even if they receive assistance, of any kind, the experts insist that the key is that it be continued because an ex-soldier can fall apart emotionally only to return home or after months or years. “Finding a job is not a problem, but helping to maintain it,” said Brat Anderson, an NCHV labor expert, and speaker at one of the sessions. “Having a job helps you improve your self-esteem, reinvest in your community and enhance your safety net.

But you can lose your job because of psychological factors, substance abuse or problems of managing your life or health, “he added. Although the figures are positive - the rate of unemployment of the veterans is below average - the loss of work can quickly lead to a decrease in poverty and, ultimately, in the loss of the home. From what little Ben tells.