PTSD and Homelessness Form a Vicious Cycle That Plagues Many Young Veterans From Iraq and Afghanistan

The Obama administration and the Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs have made amazing strides in decreasing the number of homeless veterans in this country. But there’s still a lot to be done, and the problem may be growing more quickly than it can be helped. 

In 2009, President Obama launched the first comprehensive federal plan to end homelessness in America — including the ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. But with the influx of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan before the guys who fought in the Gulf War and Vietnam are off of the streets, ending veteran homelessness is starting to sound a lot like carrying water uphill in a sieve.  

Veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless compared to Americans in general, according to a 2009 government report. At the time of the same report, over 130,000 veterans — about one in every 168 — was homeless.

Veterans are also likely to be homeless for longer than non-vets, an average of six years compared to four. And, a truly depressing statistic: homeless veterans on average spend over eight times as long homeless as they did in deployment.

One factor that contributes to the higher likelihood and duration of homelessness in veterans is the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and homelessness. PTSD raises the risk of homelessness because it makes it difficult to build and maintain relationships, and to hold down a job. And then the stress of being homeless exacerbates preexisting problems, in a vicious cycle that makes it even harder to pick up the pieces.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are even more likely to develop PTSD than other veterans, according to a report compiled as part of the Opening Doors initiative by the Obama administration. Vets are already at a much higher risk than the general population, but the even higher rate in Iraq and Afghanistan vets is attributed to the common practice of repeated deployment.

“We house more Iraq and Afghanistan and younger veterans than older veterans,” Joe Leal, an Army veteran who founded a group to get homeless vets off the street, told NBC News. “It used to be where a homeless vet was typically about 60 years old. Now, they’re 22-years old.”

None of this is to say that there hasn’t been impressive progress so far in addressing the problem of veteran homelessness, or that it’s a lost cause by any means. Even if it’s a losing battle, it’s more than worth fighting.

Roughly 75,000 vets were homeless on any given night in 2011, as estimated by the VA, down from 131,000 in 2008. That’s impressive and inspiring progress, but there’s still a lot to do to reach the goal of getting every veteran off the street and into a home by 2015.

And even if that goal is met, the struggle won’t end there.

"If you got the last homeless guy off the street in June of 2015, July first, there'd be another homeless guy," Stephen Peck, who runs the United States Veterans Initiative, told NPR.

And he’s right — it’s not just a matter of scooping people up off of the streets and putting them indoors, veterans need and deserve a comprehensive, lasting support system that will not only help them get their lives back together, but help keep them together.

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Lilly O'Donnell

Lilly O'Donnell is a freelance writer, currently working on her first book.

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