Homeless Vets Speak Out


This reporter was recently forwarded a press release which focused on the problem of homeless veterans recently discharged from active duty. The Jan. 5, 2009, press release was issued by the Illinois chapter of Volunteers of America indicated that “Nationally, over 200,000 are homeless on any given night in this country and more than 500,000 are homeless at some point during the year.” Erica Foreman, a community relations coordinator for Volunteers of America, said: “The lack of affordable housing – that is a big problem in Chicago and nationally, leaving many veterans in America homeless.

“A lot of people don’t realize how many homeless veterans there are. It is obscene. “There has never been affordable housing or sufficient job opportunities for these veterans. Volunteers of America has come up with its own affordable housing program that should be launched in 2010 on Madison and St. Louis on Chicago’s West Side. I think our communities should really get involved and contact local aldermen and governmental officials.”

Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois, cited data to show the growing extent of the crisis: “National data shows that 26 percent of adults experiencing homelessness are veterans, although veterans make up only 11 percent of the adult civilian population. In 2006, 2,197 veterans in Illinois experienced homelessness, according to Veterans Administration data. “The increase in veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the state of the economy undoubtedly suggest that homelessness among recent veterans has been increasing” One of the veterans I interviewed put the case simply.

Frederick Tolbert, a homeless veteran, said, “For those that lay their lives on the line for this country, housing is not much to ask for.

“You know when Barack Obama was senator, he really gave me confidence in this country again with this program called Veteran Upward Bound. There was an affiliate veteran’s program at Roosevelt University, part of a Trio Networking Company that was very helpful. I learned my computer skills being part of this program. I wrote to some governmental officials and Sen. Obama sent me a letter back saying that ‘We will not let this program go.’ There had actually been talk of shutting the program down.”

Tolbert said housing was a challenge after his discharge: “I had my sister who wanted to be there for me but that was a jeopardizing her situation because of my sister being a part of public housing and in that situation, you can’t have anyone else living there because it could jeopardize your standing with public housing. “I just had to go…I went into a homeless shelter on 63rd Street and Claremont after I left my sister’s. “Since leaving the service, I’ve had hundreds of jobs.

I wrote a book called ‘The Road to 100 Jobs.’ Why so many? Well, because after 6 months, I was gone from my job. (After discharge) I was a thrill seeker and the thrill was in my ability to get a job. After 6 months, the thrill was gone, so I sought and found another job. The thrill was just in the act. Like for the book, the thrill was to write it, not publish it. The thrill was in getting the job, not working for so long or holding onto the job. Volunteers of America has really helped me to cope with post-war stress and has helped to make me more sociable. Before I came here, I didn’t want to be around anyone. I came here and I was really helped to start opening up more. “I think for the first two months, soldiers should be able to talk to somebody and even if the soldiers say they don’t want to, it should be mandatory because during that therapeutic time, something will come out. This is a capitalist country and you will suffer. I think that any soldier should be provided with someone to talk with before they come out, at least for 60 days.” “I think that people in governmental authority should give, and I am really just asking for a chance. Big things are not perfect but thank God for shelters. I mean, you can’t put a band aid on a situation.”

Homelessness and affordable housing have been huge areas of concern for activists for a long time. Now, however, with talk of bringing the troops home from Iraq as soon as political and military wisdom would dictate, activists and media people alike are trying to look at studies to see what kind of picture the numbers or statistics seem to project. To confirm the figures in the press release, I spoke with Tom Greco at one of many Veterans Administration offices.

Greco cited a report written by the VA’s Project CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups), which he said was updated regularly. That report stated: “The guiding principle behind Project CHALENG is that no single agency can provide the full spectrum of services required to help homeless veterans become productive members of society. Project CHALENG enhances coordinated services by bringing the VA together with community agencies and other federal, state, and local governments who provide services to the homeless to raise awareness of homeless veterans’ needs and to plan to meet those needs.

Each year, Project CHALENG publishes a report summarizing the results of annual surveys of both local VA staff and community participants. “The 2007 CHALENG Report estimates that on any given night, approximately 154,000 veterans are homeless….This figure is a decrease of 21 percent from the estimate 195,827 given in the 2006 CHALENG Report.”

The report indicates reduction in veteran homelessness figures. But many activists are not pleased with what they see as the spinning of the numbers done by the Veterans Administration. On the “Fact Checker” section of the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s web site, I found this statement: “Counting the number of homeless veterans is a difficult task. Convergent sources estimate that between 23 and 40 percent of homeless adults are veterans. “Although homeless veterans have served in different wars, including World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama and Lebanon, earlier research indicated that those serving in the late Vietnam and post-Vietnam era had the highest representation in the homeless population. “Recent media accounts highlight a small but growing number of veterans from the Iraq wars showing up in shelters.”

Lawrence Dangerfield, another veteran, had a lot to say about his to survive after being discharged from the military. Neatly dressed, he spoke confidently with wisdom and understanding. In my interview with him, Dangerfield explained some the difficulties encountered after being discharged: “I first came out disoriented. I couldn’t handle people standing behind me. I was depressed and disappointed because I was not admitted into the war and my purpose for joining the service was to participate in the war. I was an angry youth. I was tired of being shot at on the streets. I wanted to kill or be killed. I was shipped off to Hawaii where the captain sent me to see a psychiatrist at Pearl Harbor.

Originally, my crew and I were to be sent to Vietnam.

However, after my psychiatric evaluation, it was determined that I was not to see any action, as the powers that be decided that I should not be given a gun. Things changed. I came back to the US angry because I was trained to kill but was not rehabilitated, so I was de-activated feeling angry. And, as for African Americans, our families really care for us because they love us, and really want to help us, but sometimes they can’t, because we’re dysfunctional. They can’t really help us because they don’t understand, like when we’re screaming in the middle of the night because we have nightmares due to our experiences in the war. Some of us have addictions or social problems. It’s many things that we come back with that are very problematic. I never saw combat but my war-time experiences might actually have been worse.

Our families care but may not understand and therefore they can’t really provide adequate and relevant or sufficient help. “After you leave the service, you become independent and because of your self-dependent attitude, well, I had an inability to reach out and touch society because I’ve had mental conflicts and anguish and when I was in the service, I was sent to a psychiatrist.

That didn’t help me. Truthfully, I believe that he didn’t try. After my first year, I developed an alcoholic problem and was never offered help and that led to a drug problem which they knew about, but did not try to help me at all. (It seemed) that I saw (people of other ethnic groups) not be demoted for the same reasons that I was; all of the white guys still got promoted regardless of their problems or circumstances.

Often, they seemed to receive better treatment and that really caused unnecessary anger in me. “I think for prevention, before the soldiers are discharged they should be given 45-60 days to get re-acclimated and there should be city military residences for at least 6 months to a year for those that sacrificed their time and lives for the United States.” Dangerfield said some of the community and church-based organizations have utilized re-integration strategies with returning veterans not provided by the military. Dangerfield added that “the patience of the staff and their workers” at these community- and faith-based facilities did him the most good. “They provide the hope and self–confidence…really reaffirming the hope and self-confidence which seemed lost beneath the surface. It is actually the lack of self confidence that causes rebellion,” said Dangerfield.

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