We Need More Programs Like This

July 10, 2008 at 12:29 am | Posted in Mental Health, Military | Leave a comment

For many individuals being homeless is a “temporary” state, but for others it is more of a chronic condition. The United States Department of Health and Human Services- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published the following statistics about the chronicity of being homeless:

  • Most, or about 80 percent, exit from homelessness within 2 or 3 weeks. They often have more personal, social, and economic resources to draw from than people who are homeless for longer periods of time.
  • About 10 percent are homeless for up to 2 months, with housing availability and affordability adding to the time they are homeless.
  • Another 10 percent are homeless on a chronic, protracted basis, for as long as 7 or 8 months in a 2-year period. Disabilities associated with mental illnesses and substance use are common. On any given night, this group of homeless persons can account for up to 50 percent of those seeking emergency shelter.

According to the same website, over 66% of homeless individuals report problems with substance use and/or mental health and while veterans are 13% of the overall population in our country, they comprise 23% of the homeless population. VA estimates indicate that 45% of homeless veterans have a mental illness and over 70% have substance use/abuse problems, with some experiencing both mental illness and comorbid substance abuse problems.

I doubt these facts are a huge surprise to most of you. After all, the cliche’ of the “crazy” homeless veteran didn’t appear out of thin air. However, a lot of people who work with veterans are noticing that there seems to be an alarming increase in the numbers of young veterans who are either homeless or on the verge of being homeless. For many young veterans PTSD, depression, and other psychological disorders are a very real problem. Many individuals confronted with these disorders will attempt to “self-medicate” with alcohol or other substances (both veterans and non-veterans). In addition, many of the younger veterans returning from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited resources to buffer against the negative impacts and consequences of mental health and substance use problems. They have left the service and may have trouble obtaining civilian employment due to the current economy or lack of a clear equivalent job in the civilian world, don’t have significant savings to use for living expenses during the transition, and are often cutoff from a primary source of social support when they leave military life. Homelessness in this population is a complex problem requiring multi-faceted intervention.

Over the weekend I read this article about a new program for homeless veterans in Houston, Texas. The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center opened a new Domiciliary Care program for homeless veterans at the beginning of July. The program includes a transitional living situation combined with comprehensive multi-disciplinary services. Veterans served by the program live in apartments with kitchenettes in the Texas Medical Center area (one of the few areas of the city that is well served by public transportation- both buses and light rail). In addition, they receive comprehensive medical and psychological assessments and treatment as well as vocational rehabilitation. In other words, the program is designed to address problems which contribute to becoming homeless and to staying homeless in this population. This press release from the VA has more information about the program.

The article published in the Houston Chronicle presents information about the program within the context of the story of one veteran of the war in Afghanistan. I recommend reading it to learn more, but want to share the part of the story I fixated upon and that inspired the title of this post.

Cahill, a Tulsa native, came here from his hometown in May after hearing about the new facility and treatment available at the VA for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

This new program sounds great, but it’s sad that he had to travel so far away from his family and home to get the services he needs. Tulsa isn’t a small town and I’m sure there are other homeless veterans living in Tulsa. This is why I titled this post “We Need More Programs Like This”.

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