State Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, recently introduced a joint resolution — which has the legal standing of a normal bill — that would allocate $1.75 million to build homes for veterans. The money would fund up to 69 units, which would house about half of the state’s homeless veterans.
Though it is not nearly enough money to accommodate all of the homeless veterans in Rhode Island, “I think we have to make sure that we continue to support our veterans, and this is a tremendous start,” said Pichardo, who is himself an air force veteran.
Nationwide, 62,000 veterans are homeless, according to a 2012 point count by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of these homeless veterans, about 270 reside in Rhode Island, according to the state’s Rhode Back Home report, which detailed several problems facing veterans returning from overseas deployment. While veterans represent only 7 percent of the American population, they make up 13 percent of the homeless population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans’ Affairs met Wednesday to discuss the joint resolution along with other bills that affect veteran wellbeing and recommended the resolution be held for further study.
Physical and psychiatric disabilities, the high cost of housing and the poor economy all contribute to veteran homelessness, said Denis Leary, executive director of Veterans Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that services New England veterans and their families.
Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which greatly hinders their abilities to find and keep jobs, Leary said. Unemployed veterans then become homeless when they are unable to pay for housing, he said.
Some veterans develop substance abuse problems when they try to cope with PTSD, creating a roadblock to stability, said Kevin Long, senior case manager at Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, a nonprofit that works to end veteran homelessness in the state. Fifty percent of homeless veterans have a serious mental illness, and 70 percent are suffering from substance abuse problems, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. The poor economy also plays a role in veterans’ difficulty finding work by making jobs scarce, he said.
Long is a veteran himself and was homeless for a time after he returned to civilian life. He struggled with alcoholism and was evicted from his home because he could not pay the rent, he said.
“I stayed in the shelter systems just looking for work here and there, but it’s a little tough looking for work when you don’t have an address,” Long said. He eventually enrolled in a rehabilitation program for alcoholics run by Soldier On, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization that helps veterans.
Veteran-specific programs like Soldier On that are run by other veterans are ideally positioned to help struggling veterans get back on their feet, Long said.
“Being a veteran is a completely different world, and only another veteran will understand,” Long said. Three years ago, he was able to find a job with Operation Stand Down — which allows him to give back to others facing the same struggles he did — and he has been there since, he said.
“The veterans were there to help me when I needed it, and I want to be here to help other veterans when they need it,” he said.
Though providing veterans with housing is an admirable goal, it is also necessary to deal with the root causes of homelessness, Long said. Members of the military should be briefed on available services prior to discharge to ensure they understand all their options and have support for readjusting to civilian life, he said.
Preventing homelessness is vital to treating the problem on a larger scale, Leary said. Veterans Inc. has been especially successful with its Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families program, which allows the organization to provide temporary financial assistance to families that fall behind on housing payments. In the past year, the program has allowed more than 400 families to stay in their homes, providing a cushion for veterans who may be out of work for a few months, he said.
The organization also provides “psychiatric stabilization services, case management services and food bank services,” he said.
“The fact that somebody comes back from serving in the military and putting their life on the line for all of us and then they end up sleeping on a park bench — you have to say, ‘Wow something’s messed up here,’” he said. “We’ve really got to put some attention on this.”