What Is a Homeless Veteran? 

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Homelessness in the United States is a complex and multifaceted issue with a wide range of causes and effects. The number of homeless people in the US has grown significantly over the past two decades, with an estimated 326,000 individuals experiencing sheltered homelessness on any given night in 2021. Of this total, an estimated 19,750 are homeless veterans.1

Veterans make up a disproportionately high percentage of individuals experiencing homelessness in the US, with a veteran homeless rate nearly double that of the general population. In fact, data from 2008 showed that the incidence of homelessness among veterans was almost 47 per 10,000 Vets. Veterans experience higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and mental health issues that can lead to or exacerbate homelessness.2

Veterans who are homeless face a number of challenges, both in terms of access to services and support and overcoming the stigma associated with being homeless. Many veterans lack access to health care, job training and housing assistance that could help them get back on their feet. Those who do have access may be reluctant to seek help due to fear or shame. Additionally, homeless veterans often face discrimination from their peers and members of the general public due to their status as a veteran.3

In this article,  we will explore the causes of veteran homelessness, the challenges associated with it, and what can be done to address this critical issue. We will also look at how organizations such as the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are working to support homeless veterans and help them transition into stable housing.

Substance Abuse and Veteran Homelessness Statistics

Approximately 19,750 veterans lived in shelters in 2021, representing 6 percent of homeless adults residing in shelters. Out of every 10,000 homeless veterans, 11 experience sheltered homelessness.1

The correlation between veteran homeless rate and substance abuse is largely attributed to military-related trauma experienced by veterans, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This trauma often leads to mental health issues, which can then lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Consequently, this can cause veterans to spiral into homelessness due to their inability to function in society.4

More than half of the 62% of homeless veterans who spent at least 2 years on the streets suffered from severe mental and physical health problems. Comparatively, 76% of the veteran homeless population has been affected by substance abuse or addiction, while 32% of them have experienced all three conditions.4

The correlation between veteran homelessness and substance abuse is largely attributed to military-related trauma experienced by veterans, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This trauma often leads to mental health issues, which can then cause drug and alcohol abuse. Consequently, this can cause veterans to spiral into homelessness due to their inability to function in society.5

It is estimated that the rate of substance abuse among homeless veterans is approximately twice that of the general veteran population. As a result, addressing substance abuse among homeless veterans is an important part of any plan for helping these individuals transition back into civilian life. It is essential for homeless veterans struggling with substance abuse to be provided with the necessary resources to successfully overcome their addiction. Such resources may include access to mental health treatment and support services, employment assistance, housing assistance, and substance abuse counseling or therapy.5

What are the Causes for Veteran Homelessness?

Veteran homelessness can be caused by a variety of factors, including:5 

  • Poverty.
  • Lack of affordable housing.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Substance abuse.

Factors such as economic insecurity, limited access to medical services, poor social support systems, and inadequate reintegration into civilian life can all contribute to the high homeless veteran rate.5

For some veterans, homelessness is caused by deployment-related physical and mental health issues. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), depression, and anxiety are some of the most commonly reported conditions among the homeless veteran population.2

Additionally, veterans returning from service are often unable to access the medical and rehabilitative services that they need in order to successfully transition back into civilian life. This can lead to unemployment or underemployment, which may further contribute to the high veteran homeless rate.2

In addition to health-related issues, veterans may also face challenges due to a lack of social support systems. After transitioning from the military, many veterans find that they do not have a strong network of family and friends who can help them adjust to civilian life. This lack of support often leads to feelings of isolation and depression, which can contribute to homelessness.3

Finally, an increased veteran homeless rate can also be caused by a lack of affordable housing. Many veterans struggle to find stable and secure housing due to low incomes and limited access to financial resources. Additionally, some cities have high costs of living, which make it difficult for veterans to afford safe and secure housing.2

Risk Factors Within Homeless Veteran Community

Homeless veterans face many challenges, including increased risk of physical and mental illness due to a lack of basic necessities. Additionally, they are exposed to numerous external risks from their environment that can further contribute to their hardship. These include:3, 5

  • Transitioning Stress: The transition from military to civilian life can be very difficult for many veterans, particularly those who have served multiple tours of duty. They may face difficulty finding employment, adequate housing, and other basic necessities needed for a successful transition period. Without access to proper resources or services, veterans may become increasingly vulnerable to homelessness.
  • Substance Abuse: This is a major homeless veteran risk factor. Alcohol and drug misuse can lead to job loss, financial hardship, psychological distress, and criminal activity, which can cause individuals to become homeless.
  • Lack of Income: Homeless veterans often lack access to employment opportunities, which limits their ability to pay for basic necessities such as food and shelter. Furthermore, veterans may not be eligible for certain types of financial assistance due to their military service or other factors.
  • Lack of Family/Social Support: Homeless veterans are often disconnected from their families and lack a support system that could provide them with resources they need to avoid becoming homeless. This lack of social support can leave veterans feeling isolated and helpless, increasing their risk of becoming homeless.
  • Mental Health Changes: Many veterans who experience homelessness may also suffer from mental health issues such as PTSD or depression that can contribute to the risk of homelessness. These individuals may require specialized treatment for their conditions in order to effectively manage their condition and reduce their risk.

How Does Substance Abuse Play in Veteran Homelessness?

Substance abuse is a major factor in the high veteran homeless rate, especially when it comes to the lack of their decision-making capacity. Substance abuse can lead to impaired judgment and difficulty engaging in rational thought. This can lead veterans down a path of making decisions that are ultimately not in their best interest, including decisions that affect their financial security. When drug and alcohol use gets out of control, veterans can suffer from personal life issues such as family problems and relationship strain.5

Veterans who do not receive the help they need to overcome substance abuse are more likely to face financial difficulties due to an inability to manage their resources effectively. This can lead them further into a cycle of poverty that can prove difficult to break. Substance abuse can also lead to professional life failure and a decrease in job opportunities due to poor performance or absenteeism, making a veteran homeless as they are unable to make ends meet.5

In order to combat the high veteran homeless rate, it is important that appropriate interventions be provided for veterans struggling with substance abuse so that they have the resources to make informed decisions and are able to take control of their lives. By helping these veterans, we can better ensure that they have the necessary tools to create a stable life for themselves and avoid becoming homeless.5

How to Help a Homeless Veteran Avoid Substance Abuse

Active duty military personnel and veterans face a number of barriers to substance use disorder treatment, such as difficulty accessing treatment, insurance coverage gaps, stigma about seeking treatment, and fear of negative consequences.5

The most important first step in helping a homeless veteran avoid substance abuse is connecting them with VA resources for lodging and job opportunities. When a veteran has a safe and stable place to sleep, they are more likely to stay sober. Similarly, connecting a veteran with job opportunities can help provide income and instill a sense of purpose in their life.5 

Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-08255 can help you learn more about the resources and support available to homeless veterans. With the right tools, it is possible to help a homeless veteran avoid substance abuse and lead a healthier life.6

It is also important to provide homeless veterans with peer support groups. Having a strong social network is essential for anyone’s well-being, especially veterans who have experienced trauma.These peers understand the unique struggles of being a veteran and can offer a listening ear to their comrades.5

Finally, experience-sharing platforms provide homeless veterans with an opportunity to connect with other veterans and share their stories. This can provide a sense of community for veterans facing homelessness, as well as provide an outlet for their experiences.5

How to Find Effective Homeless Veteran Rehab Programs?

Homeless veterans need access to a variety of rehabilitation programs that meet their specific needs. Effective rehab programs for homeless veterans are those that provide evidence-based treatment and support services while also recognizing the challenges they face due to their homelessness.5 

Some useful resources include:7, 8, 9, 10, 11

  • Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs (MH RRTPs): These homeless veteran programs are designed to provide veterans with intensive treatment services in a residential setting. These programs are tailored to the veteran’s individual needs and focus on providing them with the best possible care and support while helping them reintegrate into society. A key aspect is the availability of housing for homeless veterans, as this helps ensure that they remain in treatment and are able to access necessary support services.
  • VA Supportive Free Housing: The Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH) offers vouchers for homeless or at-risk veterans seeking affordable housing. Veterans and their families can live in affordable housing provided by landlords in both new and existing properties.
  • Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program: The Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP) provides employment assistance, job training, and other supportive services to homeless veterans. Through HVRP, veterans can gain the skills and knowledge needed to become self-sufficient and successful in the workforce. Additionally, case managers provide support by helping veterans access housing, education, mental health care, and other resources.
  • Compensated Work Therapy: Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) is a homeless veteran program offered by the VA that allows veterans to get paid while they receive therapy and counseling. Through CWT, veterans can gain valuable skills and experience in a safe and supportive environment. This program provides homeless veterans with an opportunity to work towards their goals while also receiving necessary medical care and other services.

These are just a few of the available resources for homeless veterans in need of effective rehab programs. Others, like Salute to Recovery, offer veterans and first responders a variety of mental health services, inpatient and outpatient alcohol and drug rehab programs, safe detoxification and support services.7

Providing high-quality treatment solutions through partnerships with major healthcare providers and insurance companies such as Tricare, American Addiction Centers (AAC) has over ten years of experience treating substance abuse issues and mental health issues. As the largest network of statewide rehab and detox facilities specializing in addiction recovery, it offers a variety of treatment types such as inpatient treatment proven to result in long-term sobriety and accepts a variety of veterans insurance programs

Their team of admissions navigators are always available to assist in verifying insurance coverage, explaining the admissions process and offering to help find the right veterans rehab program, or any other specialized program such as men-only treatment.

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