By Gregg Zoroya
Nearly 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were either homeless or in a federal program aimed at keeping them off the streets during 2013, almost triple the number in 2011, according to numbers released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The number among this generation falling on hard times is rising sharply even as homelessness among veterans of all ages and conflicts has been on the decline, according to the VA.
Advocates for the homeless say many of the estimated 2.5 million Americans who served in the two wars went into combat zones on multiple deployments, something many veterans of previous conflicts never had to endure.
"They're coming home to a bad economy. The country is different. Their families are different. They are different. Plus they are dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other issues around mental health," says Gregory Scott, president of New Directions For Veterans, a non-profit assistance group in Los Angeles.
"We don't know what the long-term impacts will be on the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," says John Driscoll, president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling with homeless issues has grown because the department has expanded efforts to identify and assist them. The department has programs throughout all 50 states, working with community groups to target homeless veterans, and as a consequence, a more accurate picture of the number of these veterans is emerging.
A lack of affordable housing has contributed to veteran homelessness, the VA says.
This week, the department announced it will continue to fund, at a record annual level of $300 million, a program that places a priority on finding immediate shelter for veterans or helping those at risk of homelessness to keep their homes.
The program began with $60 million in 2011 and grew to $300 million in 2013. The department recently announced it was locking in funding at $300 million for each of 2014 and 2015.
"Those who have served our nation should never find themselves on the streets, living without hope," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in announcing the funding.
The money is in the form of grants to more than 300 community groups that target homeless veterans or those at risk of becoming homeless. It provides a range of services to help veterans keep their homes, including mediation with property owners, assistance with rent and utilities, moving expenses, child care and transportation, the VA says.
"We're thrilled," Driscoll says of the funding, adding that it is "finally up to scale where it could really start having some major impacts."
He says consideration should be given to increasing the grants to $500 million annually because the ultimate extent of homelessness among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is unknown.
"We don't know what the need for services long-term is going to be," he says.