Next: Back from Iraq, Pt. 1
Jerry Cruz came back from Iraq battling with Bipolar Disorder and unable to find a job. He stayed with friends and family for a few months after leaving the service in 2006, but once their patience ran out, Cruz ended up on the streets.
Sleeping in hallways and under the boardwalk, he joined an increasing number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
In New York City, the Department of Homeless Services estimates at least 2,000 veterans are homeless, but community housing providers for homeless veterans such as the Jericho Project and New Era Veterans estimate the number to be closer to 3,500.
Although the number of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is unknown, more than half dozen local housing assistance programs for homeless veterans noted a significant increase in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking help in the past few years.
Veteran advocates within and without the VA expect this trend to continue as the wars go on, but predict that a significant increase of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will take a few years to develop.
“It will take two, three, five, maybe ten years,” said DHS Commissioner Robert Hess, “for them to see all their social networks and supports deteriorate over time before they actually experience homelessness.”
The VA recently established the National Center for Homeless Veterans to study the problem, to find ways to help veterans avoid homelessness and to help those in shelter and on the streets into permanent housing.
The Center’s director Vince Kane did not reply to six requests by email and telephone requests in Jan. and Feb. to be interviewed for this project save for one email response directing inquiries to his secretary. Calls to that number were not returned.
But DHS Commissioner Hess does not think that the dramatic rise in the 1980‘s homelessness among veterans of the Vietnam war will repeat itself, due to an expanded support infrastructure that has since been put in place.
“I don’t think the experience of combat, coupled with the lack of public assistance when veterans returned that caused the Vietnam-era experience will happen again,” he said.
Yet many veterans have a difficult time transitioning to civilian life. Many struggle to overcome psychological injuries such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and depression.
“A lot of them turn away from their families,” said Gary Huggins, a formerly homeless Iraq war vet and a case manager at Black Veterans for Social Justice (BVSJ), a Brooklyn-based veterans organization. “A lot of them lock all the issues down that they’re going through. And kinda they’ll self-implode after a while with all that stress built up.”
Many veterans are slow to seek help--out of pride, a lack of knowledge about available services, and a military culture that stigmatizes PTSD and other psychological injuries as weaknesses, say those that understand military culture. In many cases, it takes a family member to confront the veteran before he or she will seek help.
“We’re soldiers, we’re not supposed to break, we’re not supposed to be fragile,” said Jason Ortiz, a Persian Gulf era vet and coordinator at the New Era Veterans residence in the Bronx. “So a lot of them don’t want to admit that there’s something mentally or physically going on with them.”
Among more than two dozen homeless veterans interviewed for this project, all reported trouble navigating the VA claims system. Some reported waits of up to two years for a response to a claim, and others said they had no idea how to access VA benefits until they received assistance from local veterans organizations.
Some did not know they were eligible for services such as housing assistance or PTSD treatment. Despite increased outreach by the VA, DHS, and community organizations, experts in the field say that many veterans do not seek help until they are already in crisis.
“To be honest, I haven’t really been getting any help at all,” said Rick Braithwaite, 43, a homeless Persian Gulf war veteran living at the Borden Ave. veterans shelter in Queens. “The information that I have is information that I found out for myself through word of mouth.”
The VA, and DHS locally, have tried to increase the amount of outreach directed towards returning veterans and homeless veterans.
“There’s a rich array of services available to veterans through Project Torch,” said Hess, referring to city’s new centralized service center for homeless veterans. “And the number one thing we can do it get veterans who are precariously housed or who are at risk of becoming homeless to Project Torch even before they become homeless”.
On August 1, 2009, the Post 9/11 GI Bill took effect, providing a 36-months of college tuition to veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. The bill has helped countless vets, like Huggins. With the help of Black Vets for Social Justice, he enrolled in New York City Tech, where he was able to find a job working at the schools office of Veterans Affairs. The state of New York has passed a similar bill as well.
“New York State recently passed legislation that allows any veteran that has served in any conflict from Vietnam until now to get a free college education,” said Adriano Espaillat, a state Assemblyman, referring to a program for all CUNY and SUNY schools. “But that’s not enough.”
Minimal efforts are made to help veterans find employment immediately after they leave the service, something advocates say is necessary to curb the rising problem of homeless vets.
“They’re walking into a depression,” said Espaillat, who is chairman of the Assembly’s Veterans Committee. “We need to assist the veterans that are coming back on how to get access to employment.”
Recent data from the Department of Labor (DoL) revealed a 21 percent unemployment rate in 2009 among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans between the ages 18 to 24.
The state Division of Veterans Affairs is doing the best it can to reach out to returning veterans, said Deputy Director Bill Kraus, and trying to use social media to connect with younger veterans.
“Facebook, Twitter, we have dedicated staff now to an outreach team,” Kraus said, “we’re doing veteran friendly campus initiatives across the state, so we’re doing all that we can do.”
When soldiers leave the military they are offered a Transitional Assistance Program (TAP), a three-to-five day workshop run by the VA, DoD and DoL. The course teaches veterans about job market trends, job searches, resume writing, and interview prep. Veterans who participate in the program find jobs three weeks faster on average than those who do not, according to the DoL.
Cruz enrolled in a TAP program after returning from Iraq, but had mixed feelings.
“I just don’t think that they take the real time that they should to give us that type of training,” he said. “Just two or three hours is not enough a day, for a week, before you come home. Maybe a month would be a lot better.”
However, he did learn something in the program, and applied for a position at the city Department of Sanitation, passing the entry exam with a score of 100. He thought he would be a shoe-in, because of his high score and the fact that wartime veterans are supposed to be given preference at government jobs under the Veterans Readjustment Act. But, he never got a call back.
“I believe that [if] I were to be called by the city I could’ve avoided a lot of different avenues,” he said. “I’m not blaming just that one situation, but that is one of the situations that I do look at that’s unfair to veterans.”
Cruz has since been able to find an apartment thanks to assistance from Black Vets for Social Justice and a subsidized housing voucher granted by the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While he said that not enough support is in place to help veterans transition back to civilian life, Cruz has found that there are an abundance of services available for veterans with psychological injuries or in need of housing assistance.
“There is help out there,” he said. “You just gotta be willing to go out there and get it.”
Next: Back from Iraq, Pt. 1
More in Long March Home