By Derek Langhorn
When veterans return home from war, they must often reintegrate into civilian life, and some may face struggles. On April 17 at Whatcom Community College, a seminar geared towards veterans highlighted one problem that many veterans may face: homelessness.
Called Housing Options for Veterans, three community members involved in outreach centers and affordable housing organizations were in attendance. The representatives of the community programs spoke to the veterans who attended about various housing and benefit programs available to them.
The Whatcom County Veterans Program, which is a part of the Health Department, provides veteran-specific aid. The program was represented by Liz Witowski, an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran and veterans specialist with the program.
The Veterans Program can help veterans receive benefits from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), provide programs to help with employment assistance and transitioning back into civilian life, Witowski said.
Also in attendance was Catherine Chambers, who works for the Volunteers in Service of America (VISTA) Veterans Campus and Community Support at Whatcom.
VISTA is an Americorps program which is designated to fight poverty. The Veterans Campus and Community Support position is geared towards helping veterans.
Chambers has worked with many veterans in the past. Her job is to help create programs and projects to help veterans reintegrate into society, she said, since many veterans come home and do not have the outlets or programs that help them to readjust to civilian life after facing war.
Jarid Corbitt, the Veteran’s Coordinator at Whatcom, said that there are “a myriad of factors: multiple deployments, loss of life, the horror of killing,” which can lead to struggles for veterans returning home. “Trying to bridge the culture between war and society” can also lead to problems with reintegration, he said.
When returning from war, the VA offers “transition classes to help develop a resume and a cover letter,” but, “vets just want to go home,” and many veterans decide not to take advantage of these services, Corbitt said.
He said some veterans do not seek help because they may think “I don’t want to disclose, or I don’t know what I am feeling.” He also said that “if you have not been diagnosed, you may not know [what is affecting you].”
Corbitt said that the biggest factor leading to homelessness in veterans is the unemployment rate.
“We are bringing [the veterans] back, giving them training,” Chambers said, “but where are the jobs?”
In 2012, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development released a study about homelessness. The department estimated that up to 62,619 veterans are homeless on any night. The department also estimates that nearly 13 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans, and that 20 percent of all homeless males are veterans.
Corbitt said that the civilian sector, whether it be educational institutions or the work-force, needs to better understand what service members have learned in training or in deployments, so they can apply these skills to credits for college or job applications. “Some [veterans] have leadership skills, but civilian jobs may not accept these experiences.”
Chambers said that the “biggest issue for homeless vets is to make sure they aren’t disconnected from the community.”
When veterans have trouble reintegrating into society, it can sometimes leads to homelessness and crime, Chambers said. In May 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a government agency belonging to the U.S. Department of Justice, released a report titled “Veterans in State and Federal Prison, 2004.” This report stated that there were an estimated 140,000 veterans in state and federal prisons at the time of the study.
After working with veterans and prisoners returning home, Chambers said she sees many similarities in the difficulties people in these situations face. Because there are limited options for these people, such as reintegrating into society, dealing with mental illnesses, or finding jobs and housing may become difficult for some prisoners and veterans.
“Veterans and people coming out of prisons have similarities because there is a culture there,” Chambers said. “When they come home there is some isolation because that culture is no longer there.”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, isolation and separation from the group they have been with,” lead to troubles with reintegration for veterans, and may also lead to homelessness, Chambers said.
Chambers said she believes that veterans have not been taken care of well enough in the past by not having access to benefits and jobs immediately upon returning home. She said that she hopes the country will begin to spend the money that once went towards the war effort on benefits for returning veterans. She said that in the past, “we took the money that was supposed to be used for readjustment [for veterans], and spent it on the war.” She said she believes, though, that veterans’ struggles have been re-entering their way back into the social consciousness.
She said that with the recent cut-backs to veteran benefits and the recent high-profile sequester which caused wide-spread budget cuts to veterans programs and education, people are finally beginning to realize what these cuts mean to the veterans coming home from war. The untreated mental illness is also being recognized, as “[the veteran's] suicide rate has sky rocketed, it is becoming harder to ignore,” Chambers said.
“As a society we are more interested in how we portray veterans, rather than what we actually do for them when they return,” Chambers said. She believes that many people care for the country’s veterans, but do not realize that they are not being taken care of as well as they should be.
Although veterans may not be being taken care of in the country as a whole, Whatcom County veterans are better taken care of than many other places in the country, Chambers said. Corbitt said that the outreach programs in Whatcom County are “phenomenal groups.”
Some veterans returning home go to schools like Whatcom to receive education and training for new careers, Chambers said.
Witowski said that many veterans face struggles when returning to school because it is difficult to bridge the gap from “running a platoon of 26 combat veterans to being a college student.”
Corbitt said that students at Whatcom can help veterans with the reintegration process for veterans by “educating themselves about understand the sacrifices [veterans] have made. Be appropriate. Don’t view vets as broken or dangerous.” Chambers believes that students at Whatcom can help the veterans returning to school, by “helping them connect to activities [on campus].”
“Veteran students feel isolated, they want students to reach out,” Witowski said.
Everyone that veterans come into contact with when they come home can help with readjustment, Chambers said.
Chambers would like the veterans on campus know that she is working to make sure there are services available for them. “We want to hear from [veterans]… [we want to] find out how we can make them successful,” Chambers said.
While many veterans go to school for training, some veterans may not be seeking help, Corbitt said. Whether it is because of bad experiences with the VA or just not knowing the services and education that is available, some veterans fall through the cracks, he said.
“Let someone know, go somewhere,” Corbitt said. “Even if you have had bad experiences with the VA, be tenacious. Don’t give up, work with these groups.”