It's all over the news, it's all over the streets - everyone knows that homelessness in California is a rampant epidemic, so much so, that 20% of the entire nation's homeless population can be found in the Golden State.
But what may not be so clear to many Americans are the who and the why behind these numbers. Did you know that an astonishing 40% of homeless men in California are veterans? This means that 40% of those who lack a place to sleep or live signed up to put their lives on the line for us.
Why is this number so high? What does being a veteran have to do with being homeless?
The causes of homelessness are many - poverty, addiction, mental illness, lack of support systems, divorce, - but the overlap that's becoming more apparent in our current social climate is that these issues are the same as those afflicting veterans with PTSD. This is to say that the symptoms of PTSD, experienced by a growing number of returning American troops, are frequently contributors to the conditions that render them homeless.
According to the American Psychological Association, a full two-thirds of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD; this issue is compounded when veterans are re-traumatized during homelessness. And this makes sense - veterans have already experienced trauma on a scale that is much larger than your average American, so they are more likely to develop PTSD symptoms than your average American.
This isn't to say that every homeless veteran is dealing with PTSD. There are other risk factors for homelessness, including disability, poverty, addiction or family strife. The two-thirds of homeless vets who DO have PTSD, though, have unique needs. Lacking the right psychological toolkit, or without the appropriate supports in place, homelessness becomes the unfortunate reality for those veterans whose needs go unmet.
How can we help?
No one can relate to the plight of a veteran like another veteran - in fact, it may be detrimental to the cause for a layperson to claim they "know" what a vet is going through. The fact is, we trivialize another person's experience by claiming understanding if we haven't gone through the same thing ourselves.
This is why peer-support is crucial when it comes to reaching homeless veterans and addressing their needs. No one knows the needs of another veteran like the one who has experienced it himself.
James Peterson, a military hero-turned social worker, touched on this when asked about his experiences with PTSD and the military, noting that prior to treatment he was angry all the time. Now, thanks to "Luck, my family and therapy... I realized I wanted to help veterans with PTSD the way I had been helped." Peterson will graduate with his MSW in 2017, and he plans to use it as a "Veteran Ally" in his community.
Veterans like Peterson can be instrumental in fighting the war against homelessness. Steven K. Samra, MPA, an associate with the Center for Social Innovation, agrees with this sentiment, saying, “If we are to end homelessness, we must successfully house people. Those recovered have insight and a skill set based on training that can go a long way... Peer specialists provide an array of services and information that is hard to find anywhere else.”
The need for a community of peers is at the heart of our partner programs, the Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs. The Mighty Oaks team is comprised of warriors who have "been there" when it comes to both combat and PTSD. These men have lived the lessons they teach, and their lives are proof of the effectiveness of their programs.
The Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs equip their fellow veterans to tackle all of the challenges that life throws their way. Strengthened by the tools they are given, and emboldened by the community of brothers they find at these programs, veterans are able to stand strong, supported, and armed to overcome.
Managing symptoms of PTSD is not the "solution" to veteran homelessness. However, it is one step towards achieving the stability, health and confidence a person needs to overcome difficult circumstances like homelessness. When veterans have a psychological toolkit and a supportive community - like the one found in the Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs - they are better able to weather storms and stand strong.
If you or a loved one is a veteran in need of help or are struggling with PTSD, don't hesitate to apply for these life changing programs here.