Causes of Veteran Homelessness

When we discussed the causes of veteran homelessness, the answers varied, but most centered around key features of being too proud to ask for help, a loss of support system upon exiting the military, and the difficulty working with the system to get the help needed to survive. The idea of survival and resilience came up a few times with interviewees talking about how the military trained them to be able to survive with less and not struggling with that. Evette talked about this concept throughout her whole interview, integrating the idea of survival as a homeless individual and to military training:

Veterans, especially, because we have lived in those elements, because we have lived in the jungles, they trained us how to live in the mountains and they trained us how to go without food and water and clothes and things of that nature and to struggle with what you have. I think that’s where the homeless veteran gets stuck at… And veterans, when you’re homeless, it’s a little bit harder for us to come inside because we’ve been used to dealing with the elements. We’re used to you know, being put in situations that are uncomfortable for us. Being homeless is not comfortable, it’s very uncomfortable. But when you’re a veteran, you’re trained to get used to the uncomfortable. We’re trained to get used to the unfamiliar. We’re trained to live off of sea rations, that’s where we call the home made, the things that we get when we go out in the field. We call them sea rations. We’re used to eating like that. So when homeless comes about, it’s…we deal with it. It’s not a really big problem for us because we’ve been used to it. [1]

 

Susan Ray discusses this paradox in a chapter of her book Beyond the Line concluding that homeless veterans are often thrust into homelessness in many of the same ways as non-veterans, but they tend to handle their homeless experiences differently due to their military training and experience as, “veterans consider themselves better equipped to endure and are less fearful of the hardships of street life. However, they are also less inclined to seek or accept help because of their tendency to elevate the perceived “shame” of their situation.”[2]  This is a theme discussed and alluded to by other participants as well, “reveal[ing] that veterans’ experiences of homelessness are to some extent conditioned by their military experiences,”[3] and training in mental toughness and personal discipline. This analysis fits closely with the attitudes of many of the participants in the project. They expressed pride in what their training had taught them and prepared them for but they also communicated the difficulties they faced when asking for help, demonstrating that military culture and the subsequent development of hyper- masculinity can act as a barrier to aid.

A few of the participants expressed a belief that the loss of support system found in the military environment impacts veteran homelessness. Calvin said, “because in the military you constantly around, you always have a support system. And reason why most of ‘em become homeless is because they lost their way.”[4] The loss of support system upon exiting the military thrusts service members into an unfamiliar society with different expectations and ideas for them than they have of themselves and with no one there to share that experience and provide support and guidance, it is easy for people to begin to feel lost and struggle readjusting.  Wilbur and others refer to the lack of support upon exiting the military as part of the reason they think veterans become homeless. Wilbur responded to the question:

Why do I think veterans in general become homeless?  Because, you have a, you take a baby, you take a baby and you start to raise it and then about time that it’s pushed out of the nest someone is there to catch it and put it back in the nest, in a different nest but in a nest and you put it back in the nest and it never learns to fly.  So, but then when you’re finished with it, ok don’t say nest say a cage or whatever, but then when you’re finished with it if you don’t enjoy it anymore you just say ok, just leave the cage open and walk away from it and never come back.  The veterans I think are about time they got ready to sprout wings and go out into society, here’s a uniform, that’s the chow hall, and here’s a job.  Then after you’re finished with them, ok, go back home, but on your own.  Well I’m back on my own, what am I supposed to do.  I don’t wear clothes, I wear uniforms.  I don’t go to the kitchen to eat; I go to the chow hall.  I don’t go to the bedroom; I go to the bunk.  And subconsciously there not ready for it.  Ok, now an officer, he has college behind him and a career or whatever and he’s, he can handle it better, but NCO if he doesn’t make a career out of the service, stay in the service, I don’t know.[5]

 

 

While the military prepared the interviewees to do their job while in the service, they were then thrust into a very different civilian world upon exiting. After being conditioned to not admit to weakness, seeking out a support system can prove to be especially difficult, particularly when struggling with a situation like homelessness. Ray discusses how in her study, veterans exiting the military often found that the “structured military lifestyle can be poor preparation for the complex aspects of civilian life: housing, retraining, and education, etc.”[6] Homeless veterans she worked with often found themselves “floundering without a strong sense of individual adult identity and often feel isolated and alone in the civilian world.”[7] The experiences of veterans in her study align with the observations of interviewees participating in this project, showing how the sudden lack of structure and support system and be severely detrimental to the veteran’s ability to thrive in civilian society.

    

[1] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Richmond. Video. March 15, 2016.

[2] Ray. Beyond the Line, 301.

[3] Ray, Susan and Karen Haines and Marie Longo. Beyond the Line: Military and Veteran Health Research (London: McGill-Queen’s University, 2013). 297.

[4] Golf, Calvin. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Richmond. Video. March 17, 2016.

[5] Evans, Wilbur. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016.

[6] Ray. Beyond the Line, 303.

[7] Ibid., 303.