Feb 08, 2011

The Forgotten: Austin’s Homeless Veterans

The Veterans Association estimated in 2009 that 107,000 former service men and women were homeless on any given night. Photo by Tara Haelle

By James Jeffrey

Late on a Saturday afternoon, two of Austin’s homeless veterans sat on the grass under a tree in downtown’s Wooldridge Park, wearing multiple layers of clothing against the bitter chill of a cold snap embracing the city.

Michael, 60, who served as a Marine Corps corporal during Vietnam, said he does not resent being homeless: “We’re loners, it’s what we like, military training gave us a lot of survival skills.”

Ken, 63, a homeless ex-master sergeant in the Army’s 173rd Fifth Special Forces said, “I don’t want the stress again” of dealing with money and property. Michael nodded and said, “I don’t want the responsibility. You learn to adjust.”

Ken and Michael are two of an estimated 350 homeless veterans in Austin, men who survived violent conflicts like the Korean and Vietnam wars, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now without their platoons and comrades to watch their backs, they fight on alone trying to survive in Austin’s shadows.

Alan Graham, president of the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which provides food to Austin’s homeless, estimated there are about 1,000 “chronically homeless” in Austin, of which 25 to 35 percent are veterans.

Veterans like Michael and Ken exist all over America in its cities’ shadows. According to the website for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population [nationwide] are veterans.”  In 2009, the Veterans Association estimated that 107,000 former service men and women were homeless on any given night.

To understand why such a large proportion of the homeless are veterans, consider the types of people “attracted to the military,” Graham said.  “Often their families are very fractured or non-existent…they go into the military and they have this strong fraternal, familial bond.”

He added there is also a misconception that being in the military instills self-sufficiency. “It is the opposite of that, extraordinary dependency…you tell me what to do and I will go do that,” he said. Once out in society, as well as not having any roots to return to, there is “no one to tell them what [they] have to do.”

All this he said, is exacerbated by the “legitimate trauma of war”, which many veterans undergo, leaving them with post-traumatic stress disorder.

From his post under the tree in Woolridge Park, Ken said, “I have flash backs every once in a while, nights I wake up with a cold sweat…after a while it’s just like having a bad nightmare.” Michael murmured, “You live with it.”

Thomas Colbert, vice president of the Student Veterans Association at the University of Texas at Austin, served four years in the Army as a non-commissioned officer, including a tour in Iraq after 9/11. Among enlisted men primarily “the poor and desperate serve in the military,” he said. “The military can offer people a way out, as well as opportunities that otherwise would not be available.”

Ken experienced this when he joined the military after “the judge gave me a choice, 25-years in the federal penitentiary for running illegal moonshine or I could join the military.”  Michael said before joining he was just a “simple farm boy.”

Using the military as an escape works well as long as a person remains in the military. But everyone must leave one day, some to face new or old challenges. And when they do,  there can be little or no family support. That plus a lack of direction means many veterans struggle to reintegrate into society.

Michael said, “Things happen… you find yourself in a rut and once you find yourself on the streets, it is hard to get out.” Fate’s course has taken him from the blue skies above a small American farm, to the humid fields of Vietnam, to sitting against that tree in the park, huddled against the cold.

According to The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, many veterans live with the effects of alcohol or substance abuse. They may also face an “extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care.”

Back in the park, Ken said, “After me and my old lady got divorced, I crawled off into a bottle for a while, got back into drugs real bad.”

Before he became homeless in 1990, Michael’s daughter Mandy was hit and killed by a car, after which he and his wife “drifted” apart. She died a few years later. “I miss her too,” he said, reaching beside him for what looked like a vodka bottle. He took a deep swig.

The U.S. Interagency Council on the Homeless stated in 2010 that about half of homeless veterans have serious mental illness and 70 percent have substance abuse problems. These problems contribute to approximately 6,000 U.S. veterans committing suicide every year, according to data from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Council reports have estimated that 47 percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam-era.

Trying to explain the inordinate number, Graham, who did not serve but lived through the era, said his generation “deplored Vietnam [and] took our anger not only out on the bureaucrats and war machine, but on those who were inside the war machine, our warriors.”

Trying to gauge the impact on veterans who returned from a war zone to a society that actively resented them is difficult due to the reluctance of veterans to talk. Asked about his experiences under fire, Michael, his voice raised, said, “I don’t like talking about that shit man, ‘cause I don’t like to think about it.”

Graham said due to the shame felt about how Vietnam veterans were treated, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are treated far better now. But he does not believe the problem of homeless veterans will change, as the latest veterans still face great difficulties in coming to terms with their experiences.

Sergeant Wayne Turnbull, who in addition to an Iraq tour, recently returned from his third Afghanistan tour with the British Army, said when you “sit and have time to reflect on what you have done, [it] will stir up the emotions and trying to communicate that with other people is what really stresses people.”

Despite the undeniable trauma homeless veterans have faced, Graham said this must not cloud the fact that all “homeless brothers and sisters” need help. “By virtue of the fact they served in the military does not grant them a greater opportunity than the other guy who happens to be on the street, however he got there,” he said.

There is no changing the fact that many veterans will always carry around with them the tragedy of war, but for Graham the tragedy he sees within Austin, which could be averted, is that the homeless situation still prevails. It would cost less to house all Austin’s homeless, he said, than taxpayers currently pay for homeless individuals who end up in the local criminal and health systems.

In Woolridge Park, late afternoon having turned to night, Ken said, “I had a blast in the military, I don’t regret my service at all.” His weather-worn face filled with more crinkles as he smiled.  A homeless friend patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll see you under the bridge,” he said.

“I’ll be there,” Ken replied.

Another man called out to Michael, “Stay warm tonight,” as a cold and dark Austin night enveloped Woolridge Park’s homeless brigade.