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Homeless veterans: why it happens, and who's working to avert it

WBFO file photo

According to federal statistics, there were more than 9,100 people experiencing homelessness in New York State one year ago. More than 1,200 of them were military veterans. Nationwide, veterans account for approximately nine percent of homeless persons. Many slide down a path to homelessness due to mental illness, while others get into economic trouble from which they cannot recover.

Among the findings released in a June 2018 report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than half of homeless veterans were older than age 50. More than half had a disability. About two thirds were in some form of temporary shelter but the other one third were living with no roof over their heads.

In 2015, City Mission in Buffalo stated that one in every four homeless people in Erie County were veterans.

"I don't believe for one minute that veteran homelessness has ended," said Chris Krieger, co-founder and president of WNY Heroes, Inc., a not-for-profit that offers assistance to veterans and their families. "Because if that were true, then why are they still coming here? Why are they still coming in and saying 'I'm living out of my car,' 'I'm living out of my truck,' 'I'm been living down behind the mall.'"

The reasons vary why some leaving the military slide into poverty and homelessness. In some cases, the veteran lives with an addiction or an unrecognized mental health issue. For some, it might be a lack of know-how to enter the job market upon leaving the military.

Jacob Puff is a caseworker in the Williamsville satellite office of Supportive Services for Veteran Families, for the Rochester-based human services agency PathStone. He is a veteran, and one of many within his family who have served in the armed forces.

"My grandfather was my hero growing up," said Puff. "He used to tell me every day, be nice to everybody every day, especially the downtrodden. I've taken that to heart ever since."

Puff, without disclosing private details, was speaking of one particular client who has battled alcoholism and bounced from residence to residence. The unnamed Vietnam veteran is one of Puff's more difficult clients.

"And this guy is more downtrodden than anybody else I've ever seen. He's losing patience," Puff said.

Vietnam-era veterans made up a significant number of homeless veterans living in Erie County, Chris Collins recalled, when the current Congressman was serving as the Erie County Executive. For many, Collins suggested during a recent interview with WBFO, they were set on the path toward homelessness after coming home lacking the hero's welcome previous and later generations received.

"Some of them ended up on drugs. Some of them ended up with PTSD," he said. "Many of them today, after decades on the streets, don't want to come in. They're not homeless because we can't find them a shelter."

To Collins' point, Krieger says the challenge with getting homeless veterans off the streets is breaking the mindset they learned while in the military that asking for help is seen as a show of weakness. This often keeps them on a path toward poverty.

"A lot of men and women don't ask for that help and they finally come to us when it's beyond any repair that they can give," Krieger said. "For many of them, they turn to the drugs and the alcohol, which then starts that cycle of being really out of a home and having nowhere."

Addictions or mental health disorders aren't necessarily behind all cases of veterans who slip into poverty or homelessness. Some get into a financial slump from which they cannot recover and, many times, they unwittingly set that in motion by not knowing their legal rights.

Their protections include the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, enacted in 2003 to expand upon the Soldier and Sailors Civil Relief Act. There's also Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), under which employers are required to hold the job of an individual who is called up for active duty. If the company does need to fill that position while the military member is away, they're required to have a similar position available upon that person's return.

But many called into active duty, Krieger says, don't know that.

"So when they're called up to duty, what we're hearing from them when they come in is 'I had no idea and I quit my job,'" he told WBFO. "If you quit your job before leaving, then your employer has no responsibility to give you that position back upon returning home. Then starts them the struggle with having to start from the beginning and seek employment again."

Another problem, Puff points out, is many veterans simply don't know how to manage their lives, including balancing their finances, because everything was managed for them within the military.

"They don't really teach you how to budget. They don't really teach you how to live outside of the military spectrum," he said. "So when you do get out, you've got a lot of skills that you've learned, tools that you can use to get a job, or go to school, and you can use the GI Bill. But, you don't know necessarily how to go about managing all of that at once, because you've never been taught how to do that."

Puff noted that he and his comrades trained together, faced discipline together and suffered together. He sees his job as a continuation of working for - and with - his fellow veterans.

"You're working for your buddy next to you," he explained. "When I got out of the military, I consider every vet my battle buddy. I want to look after them and make sure I've got their back. That's what I want to focus on."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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