Ex-service members have, for a long time, been at a higher risk of homelessness than the civilian population. Thomas Byrne, an associate professor from Boston University School of Social Work Studies, is an expert on veteran homelessness and is one of the leading academicians studying why veterans are less likely to land in shelters—and how to help them better. He says that a lack of affordable permanent housing assistance for vets can make it especially tough for the former men and women in uniform to find a stable home. Those individuals who wish to help them should advocate for more economical options.
Absence of proper housing can have critical health implications
Lack of stable housing can affect health and healthcare utilization. Compared with the general population in the US, homeless individuals have higher rates of infectious diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, hepatitis C virus infection, and HIV infection), age-related co-morbidities, poorly controlled chronic conditions, and neuropsychiatric disorders.
In addition, housing instability has been associated with high mortality rates among people experiencing long-term or short-term homelessness. Finally, a review concluded that, outside specific conditions, data have not shown an overall health benefit associated with housing but also noted that housing often serves as the prerequisite to more regular care.
Other studies have reported that housing may be associated with improved physical and mental health and social outcomes, such as fewer encounters with the criminal justice system.
Homelessness has its share of stigma
In some ways, the stigma around homelessness is an extension of the stigma surrounding poverty in this country more broadly. Some of that is deeply rooted in what we—often broadly speaking, as an American society—value more in individualism and self-reliance. We view poverty and homelessness as moral failings of individuals when there’s a lot of evidence that links homelessness strongly to housing market conditions and the lack of affordable housing.
It’s often the product of diverse structural factors that signify we’re going to have some cases of homelessness and also individual vulnerabilities that place people at a higher risk. There are a lot of stigmas, but there ought not to be. For most veterans and people experiencing homelessness, it’s a temporary phenomenon. It’s not something people fall into and never escape from—it’s a housing crisis that people experience. More often than not, if people get assistance to resolve that housing crisis, they will likely remain stably housed.
There other things homeless veterans have in common
Military veterans are a heterogeneous group concerning premilitary, military, and post-military risk factors. There’s been some research that’s tried to look explicitly at those three things. For example, many of the risk factors for homelessness in the general population—adverse life experiences and lack of economic resources—also apply to military members. For premilitary risk factors, negative childhood experiences can contribute; during military service, traumatic experiences—whether it’s combat exposure or military sexual trauma; and post-military elements—job loss, financial difficulties, and dissolution of relationships. One of my colleagues looked at risk factors among veterans who served in the post-9/11 era. One of the strongest was military pay grade, a proxy for socioeconomic status.
What’s one thing everyone can do to help homeless veterans?
Ultimately, the issues of housing assistance for vets and housing affordability are at the root of homelessness, both among veterans and more broadly. Wherever it’s within your power, advocate for housing expansion for folks experiencing homelessness or just everyone in general.
Part of what motivates me to do this work is that having a safe, decent place to live is a fundamental right and prerequisite to a decent life. Of course, everyone would want that for themselves and their family, so think about it in those terms. If people want to get involved more specifically, organizations work directly with veterans experiencing homelessness. Several of them here, locally, in Boston, and Massachusetts, are doing great work. There is also sometimes a gap where some funding sources can’t be used to pay for certain things that people might need to set up their apartment; for example, there’s a real need for philanthropy to fill in and provide funds.