- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

In a country as affluent as ours, no one should be homeless. Yet veterans who have served their country account for one-third of adult individuals who are homeless in America.

On any night, more than 130,000 veterans find themselves with no place to call home. Seven percent are women. Ending veteran homelessness starts with understanding why they become homeless.

At its core, homelessness is caused by a gap between income and the cost of housing. Given the diminished stock of affordable housing, people at the bottom of the wage scale are at greatest risk for homelessness. A minimum-wage worker cannot earn enough to pay for a two-bedroom dwelling anywhere in the United States.

Despite greater opportunities for education and training that arise from their military service, many veterans also struggle to make ends meet. Researchers report that nearly half a million veterans pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent.

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While veterans overall earn higher-than-average wages, some have difficulty translating military training and experience into civilian jobs. Others find their wounds (both visible and invisible) an impediment.

Housing vouchers are a proven solution, as are investments in education and job training. Such well-recognized supports are part of a five-year, $3.2 billion initiative by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to end veteran homelessness. The challenge is to ensure that vouchers fully pay for decent housing and that funding is available for preventive measures such as rapid rehousing.

Affordable housing is essential to the solution, but not sufficient. Social networks, including services and supports, play a critical role in anchoring people in housing and the community. This is especially important if a veteran is struggling with medical, mental health or substance use issues.

Family, friends, service providers and community supports can buoy people up in times of crisis, allowing them to survive until circumstances improve. Without such a network, a person has nowhere to turn for financial or emotional support that will help prevent a downward spiral.

Most returning veterans are able to re-engage in their lives and become self-sustaining, often with help from family, friends and caretakers. Veterans without social networks can find themselves isolated and overusing alcohol to deal with their distress — factors that contribute to their higher risk for homelessness. Strong social networks often make the difference between a productive life in the community or being out on the streets.

Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In response, the military has provided extensive resources to address these issues. Because a highly developed network of ongoing supports is available for veterans with PTSD and TBI, these veterans are at substantially lower risk for becoming homeless. This clearly illustrates how support networks can mitigate the risk for homelessness.

Even though family, friends and caretakers are essential for supporting veterans in the community, resources provided by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs may not extend beyond the veteran. Private and nonprofit organizations are trying to bridge this gap, but the unmet need is great.

Given what we know about the significant role of social networks in protecting against homelessness, and the success the military has had in supporting veterans with PTSD and TBI, further resources should be allocated toward bolstering veterans’ supports. The private sector cannot do this alone.

The National Center on Family Homelessness is working with the Wal-Mart Foundation to fill a gap in veterans’ services by developing and implementing Community Circles of Support for Veterans’ Families.

This multisite program seeks to strengthen veterans’ social networks by offering a clinical intervention that pairs returning war veterans with a parent, sibling or partner, and provides opportunities for peer-to-peer networking. This initiative also builds capacity among community-based social service providers. The knowledge gained from this program will guide us in establishing and maintaining resilient networks to keep veterans stably housed.

The men and women who serve in our military give us all the chance to thrive in our homes and communities. It is unconscionable that they should not also have homes of their own.

As a nation, we must be committed to ensuring that each and every veteran is provided with decent housing and the means to secure it. We owe them much more, but certainly no less.

Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk is the president and founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness, which leads the effort to prevent and end homelessness for children and families in America.