The veteran's tale: homeless in the homeland

Many former American soldiers find it hard to readjust to civilian life. Now budget cuts to designated housing programmes are making it even tougher, says Matt Kennard.

Matt Kennard
19 December 2011

When he came home in late 2004, Ronte Foster was a changed man. His wife no longer recognised the affectionate husband and father she had seen leave for Iraq just a year earlier. He was drinking every day, taking a cocktail of drugs and erupting in fits of anger as he tried to medicate his way through the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he did not know he had.

She put up with it for six long months, eager to salvage their eight-year marriage, but then she broke. The consequences for her and their two young children were too serious. "She told me to leave and at that point I had so much trauma in my head, I just had to get away," says Ronte.

When he left his family in Danville, Virginia, he went as far as possible, running from the war and his memories. He went to Los Angeles, where he became homeless, sleeping in his car and staying with friends. Then, a break: Ronte was taken in by a community-based shelter where he became a resident floor-manager.

But a full seven years after returning from Iraq, Ronte still does not have permanent housing. He is now jobless and cannot even afford to buy food. Yet he is stoic. "It’s not perfect but I’m much luckier than other people I know of," he says.

Indeed, Ronte Foster is not alone. Thousands of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can tell similar stories, even if their narratives remain hard for America to hear. In recent months, however, the fiscal deficit and the search for programmes to cut has refocused attention on the plight of many veterans. 

The cost of safety 

The United States agencies responsible - the department of housing and urban development (HUD) and the veterans affairs (VA) supportive housing programme - jointly issue vouchers to homeless veterans which are used to pay for accommodation. From 2008-11, "Hud-Vash" gave out around 30,000 vouchers and helped 21,000 veterans into permanent housing.

That is more than enough to catch the eye of the Republican Party's deficit hawks such as Paul Ryan, whose draft 2011 budget proposed to eliminate it. This caused an outcry among Democrats, including the California senator, Barbara Boxer. "The House Republicans’ decision to slash funding for housing assistance to thousands of homeless veterans shows a total lack of humanity," she said.

A compromise budget was eventually reached which salvaged the programme, though in a reduced form that allowed it to deliver only got about 7,000 vouchers for 2011, as against the typical 10,000. Analysts say this is far from enough, especially as the withdrawal of almost all US forces from Iraq is completed. In this situation, community-based organisations are all that is left between veterans and a life on the streets.

The most extensive survey of the problem, published by the HUD and the VA, found that nearly 76,000 veterans - were homeless on any given night in 2009, and that during the same year nearly 140,000 veterans spent at least one night in a shelter. Some of those are older soldiers, but the study also found that 11,300 younger veterans (aged 18-30) stayed in shelters at some point during 2009. Nearly all of them had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One community-based group, US Vets, runs the shelter where Ronte Foster now lives. The organisation was started in 1993 in response to chronic levels of homelessness among the veteran population; it now has 2,000 beds in five states, making it the largest non-governmental provider in the country.

"There is a lot of PTSD around because it is an all-volunteer [military] and they are doing everything they can to keep soldiers," said Steve Peck, chief executive. "The soldiers are going on multiple deployments, so the more exposed they become which is exacerbating the problem." He added, "The [defence department] is aware of the problem and they are doing something, but it’s a lot bigger than they can handle."

HUD is specifically interested in "chronic homelessness", which describes those on the streets for a year or more. The department estimates that each person in this category costs up to $40,000 in police and medical expenses. A lot of veterans fall into this "chronic" bracket due to war-related PTSD or disability.

"It’s immoral and ridiculous to spend so much when we can solve problems for less money," says Mark Johnstone, deputy assistant secretary for veterans' efforts at the HUD. "We can provide housing and services for $15,000 dollars. That’s a much more efficient way to end homelessness."

It is an argument getting harder to make in an anti-government and pro-cuts political atmosphere, even when those at the sharp end are the "homecoming heroes" of media lore.

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