Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Coming Home Homeless :
There is a group of people who have done their part, stepped up, served, gone to war and done everything that has been asked of them without question or hesitation, only to find themselves homeless once that DD-214 is in hand. The Departnent of Veterans Affairs estimates that the number of homeless veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq numbers between nine and ten thousand, but Paul Reickhoff, the director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that is an extremely conservative estimate.
The seeds of the problems our veterans face were planted several years ago and myriad factors have come together and now we are looking at harvesting a bumper crop of effed up. Part of the problem is repeated deployments and the devastation that inflicts on families, especially when those repeated deployments come with inadequate dwell time in between combat rotations, and when combat tours are stacked as close together as regulations will permit, important things fall by the wayside -- like teaching war ethics -- so we have soldiers repatriating that we have misused, abused and damaged psychically. Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries and that pervasiveness is due to...wait for it...repeated deployments.
A lot of the veterans who end up homeless are eligible for VA benefits, but the approval process is cumbersome and puts the onus on the vet to prove they have a legitimate claim. Even though 86% of all claims are eventually approved it is not at all uncommon for a veteran to end up homeless while they wait for their benefits to be approved. It doesn't help that without an address, the process can be slowed down considerably.
So what can we do about it? Linda Bilmes, a researcher with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has some ideas on that, and she has gone before Congress repeatedly and told them how to fix it for a large number of these veterans, and everyone nods in agreement with her, then they do nothing she consistently recommends.
But not everyone qualifies for benefits from the VA.
One of the factors that contributes to the skyrocketing number of homeless female veterans is the disintegration of families that crumble under the stress of repeated deployments.
Tara Henry was a chemical weapons specialist with the 101st Airborne and served two deployments to Iraq. Her second tour of duty came only four months after her son was born, but while in Iraq her husband filed for divorce and was granted custody of their two kids.
"When I found out about court and everything else, I said, 'You know what? I gotta get a lawyer." Henry says. "So, I was trying to deal with those things while I was in Iraq. So that's where my money was going."
Henry has lived in shelters, hotels, even in a car on the street. She hasn't told her children that she's homeless. "I don't really think they would understand that," she says.
[ ... ]
Tara Henry, the former chemical weapons specialist whose husband filed for divorce while she was on duty in Iraq, has also found a shelter. She lives in a cubicle at the Borden Avenue Veterans Shelter in Queens. And although she hasn't told her children that she is homeless, her eight-year-old daughter knows something isn't right.
"She took all the money that she had and said, 'Hey Mommy, this'll help you buy a house.' So I guess she knows that it costs."
The military has entire JAG offices on every base. Expand the services they offer so Soldiers in Tara Henry's position, be they women or men, don't have to spend every dime they have on legal representation to keep access to their kids -- kids that they likely joined up to provide for.
I think it is time to do everything Bilmes has recommended, especially the provisional approval of benefits for all applicants. That would take a serious whack at the number of homeless veterans, but I think it is time to go her one better and add a step to the outprocessing everyone goes through when they leave the military. Not everyone has a family to go back to. It would behoove us as a society to identify those veterans during the outprocessing phase and help them secure housing and the unemployment benefits they are entitled to.
Back in 2007 right after my friend Alex outprocessed, he and I were chatting via email one evening and I asked him if he had applied for his unemployment insurance yet. He responded back something like "Oh yeah! I guess I better do that."
It hadn't even been mentioned as he was outprocessing. That's one damned sentence to utter, fercryinoutloud, but I would go one better. I would make the application for benefits part of the process, and eliminate any "waiting weeks" requirements for repatriating soldiers, since the unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is 20% -- just over twice what it is for the population at large.
I look at it this way -- it costs a million bucks a year to keep a soldier in Afghanistan. Anyone willing to step up and serve deserves to come home to a roof over their head and the security of knowing not only where their next meal is coming from, but that they have choice in what it will be. That could be achieved for about $30 - 45,000 a year, and you can throw an education or vocational training in the mix at that price tag as well.
I don't know about you, but I believe that would be money well spent. In fact, it would completely redefine the old expression about "spending good money after bad."

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