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Increasing numbers of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, many in their early 20s, are turning up homeless in San Diego County, and local service providers say they are preparing to face even larger numbers of homeless veterans in the coming years.
The San Diego Veterans Affairs Office says the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have received transitional housing services from partner agencies funded by the VA has more than doubled in the last year, to 41.
“There’s not a person in this business who doesn’t think the problem is going to get much, much worse,” said Tom Mitchell, director of communications at the Veterans Village.
The numbers, experts who serve homeless veterans said, are still small. But they said the homeless count is accelerating as more veterans are discharged from active duty and as struggling veterans from the wars’ earlier years have had time to succumb to mental and substance abuse problems and fall through the safety nets designed to assist them. Current numbers do not represent the full magnitude of the coming problem, they say.
In San Diego, private service providers and the VA are preparing for a coming swell of veterans returning to civilian life with mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. They are hoping to avoid some of the mistakes they say were committed following Vietnam, when veterans returned to a barren social service landscape that often failed to recognize “invisible” mental wounds that made reintegration into civilian life difficult. They are focusing on preventive services.
In San Diego, which is home to more than 260,000 retired and active duty veterans, the preventive services will be especially important as more active duty veterans return to civilian life.
At the Veterans Village, social workers have started community support circles for combat veterans struggling with the demons of war that often surface as soon as soldiers are expected to readjust to civilian life after spending months or years developing automatic defense mechanisms against the dangers of insurgent warfare.
They manifest themselves in downtown night clubs, where heavy bass beats evoke memories of mortar attacks, or driving down highways and overreacting at the site of a cardboard box on the side of the road, reminiscent of a roadside bomb.
The Veterans Village’s Warrior Traditions program is a support group that targets veterans and their spouses who may not understand the complex emotions and reactions they experience in the weeks, months or years after leaving the military.
Their heightened reactions may make them undesirable to employers or strain relationships with friends and family, and lead to substance abuse or other complications that increase the risk of homelessness, the program’s coordinators said.
“We’re trying to reach them early,” said Carla Jurczynski, a former Marine and the program’s director. “Before their problems have snowballed into larger and larger problems that over the months and years can lead to homelessness.”
The program invites veterans to speak about their wartime experiences with other veterans they can relate to, without strings attached. As they become more comfortable with recognizing their own problems, they are more likely to seek treatment, Jurczynski said.
For veterans in their early 20s, whose regimented military training instilled attitudes of toughness, admitting they may have mental problems is usually the first challenge they have to overcome, the program’s coordinators said.
“If you look at this from a broader societal perspective, what 22-year old is going to say, ‘let me find myself, let me get help’?” said Carletta Vicain, a coordinator with the program. “Add to that the attitudes they’ve developed in the military and it’s even less likely. They often wait too long to ask for help.”
The number of private agencies providing readjustment services for veterans in San Diego is at the highest number the county has ever seen, Jurczynski said, and the cross-agency collaboration is making it easier for advocates to reach out, a shift from previous generations’ competitiveness in seeking veteran clients for their services.
Similar agencies like the Soldiers Project, New Directions, and the Focus Project in San Diego help veterans and their families cope with deployment and post-deployment adjustments.
Social workers and homeless service providers assisting veterans say it usually takes years for veterans’ financial, mental and social readjustment difficulties to compound and drive them to the streets.
“We know from a historical perspective that it takes time. For people to get into life a little bit and get banged around,” Landis said.
But local experts agree that though the numbers are still small as a percentage of the general homeless veteran population, soldiers from the current wars are becoming homeless more quickly than after Vietnam.
“They’re not showing up yet,” said Yolanda Sidoti, acting coordinator of the San Diego VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans program. “A lot of them are still couch surfing, trying it with families, or trying it with friends.”
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to the VA, three to four percent of the roughly 130,000 homeless veterans nationwide are veterans of the current wars.
Last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced that the federal government would commit an additional $3.2 billion to prevent homelessness among veterans as the country braces for the surge in soldiers returning with mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Still, veterans will fall through the cracks, experts say. And the increase in homeless veterans is worrisome because it means veterans’ readjustment difficulties are starting to compound beyond their ability to address them.
Some tipping points have come earlier than others, but portend what could be in store for many veterans, said Mitchell of the Veterans Village.
Johnathan Pebley, 24, was arrested in March, two hours after being discharged from the Marines following his second tour of duty in Iraq, where he grew accustomed to being constantly on guard against gunfire and mortar attacks.
He was convicted of attempted murder after using a shotgun to fire two warning shots into the ground when the friend he was staying with pulled a knife following a bar fight.
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he was sentenced to a year in prison and was released after six months to enroll in the Veterans Village residential treatment program.
Pebley took a shortcut to homelessness. His mental health issues would likely have led him down a similar path, he said, as his personal relationships deteriorated and his substance abuse worsened for months or years after leaving the military.
“We could do that shit forever,” Pebley said of his time in Iraq. “Getting out of it is the problem. Having to adjust is the problem.”