By KAREN TANG and SHARADHA KALYANAM
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON — Shelley Gilbert is almost 50. After four years serving in the United States Coast Guard, she battled depression and became homeless.
After more than two years on the street, she is in a home and working at a dialysis center in northeast Washington helping her make ends meet.
Although Gilbert has been able to stay off the streets, almost 50,000 veterans were homeless on a given night early last year, the latest figures in a report by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Of these, more than 90 percent were men.
In 2010, the interagency council started a program called Opening Doors, aiming to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. But with less than three months left in the year, veterans who were previously homeless feel that efforts to pull all of them off the streets are coming up short.
And experts said veterans are still at high risk of ending up back on the streets.
“I don’t think it’ll be wiped out by the end of the year,” Gilbert said, expressing concern about veterans who have yet to find shelters.
Since 2010, veteran homelessness has decreased 33 percent, according to a report prepared by the interagency council.
Predictions from the National Alliance to End Homelessness show that with tens of thousands of troops back home from Afghanistan and Iraq, homeless veterans are increasingly younger, female and heads of households.
In addition, Vietnam War veterans – ex-soldiers aged 51 to 61 – are going to increasingly figure into the homeless veteran count in the next 10 to 15 years, the alliance said.
During that period, in fact, it is projected that the number of homeless veterans over the age of 55 could increase drastically, the group warned.
Fifty percent of homeless veterans have serious mental illnesses and 70 percent of them have substance abuse problems, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported.
According to experts, veterans often return home with severe combat issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that have been undiagnosed and untreated. When veterans have trouble coping with these conditions, they may resort to substance abuse, which can cause friction with their families and force them to leave home.
“This is particularly the case with the younger veterans who are coming back from the Middle East,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington.
Keith Coaxum served in the Army from 1991-1998 and became homeless several times after transitioning back into civilian life. He said he ran into financial and mental health issues that made it hard for him to maintain stable housing.
Coaxum, who has received help from the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System, believes it going to be challenging to end veteran homelessness by the end of December. President Barack Obama has made great strides for veterans but he will only decrease veterans homelessness, not eliminate it, Coaxum said.
Homelessness among veterans can be caused not only by economic and personal factors but also shortages of affordable housing in major cities, according to the USICH report.
Coaxum also said that there is a shortage in resources to help veterans find lower income housing, but there are temporary shelters available.
Gilbert feels that the federal government still has a lot to do.
“There are jobs. It’s just the wage that people are being paid is not enough to live on,” she said. “They need to make housing more affordable and they need to raise the minimum wage to a decent wage.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the housing department (HUD) have developed the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program to provide housing assistance to veterans. Under the program, veterans that struggle to obtain a stable income will receive a long-term housing subsidy.
“I think the idea that no veteran will ever be homeless again makes maybe a great political statement but it’s not a reality,” said Chris Buser, chief of social work at the VA Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore.
“What I see is that the president has challenged us to have in place a system that allows us to rapidly identify and rapidly re-house any veteran who may become homeless in the future,” Buser said.
But Berg is optimistic, while admitting that there are still veterans without roofs over their heads in the District of Columbia and Maryland.
“People working in D.C. are very excited about how things are going,” he said. “They’re working on completing a list of every veteran who is homeless in the area and having a concrete plan for how to get each one into housing. I think they are very upbeat about their chances of really getting the number down to very close to zero by the end of the year.”