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Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans

After years of waging war overseas, US veterans returning to civilian life struggle with PTSD, homelessness, addiction.

Roger Schultz served as a cannoneer sergeant in the US Marine Corps. He liked serving, because “I learned how to be a Marine and nothing else. You always had somebody on your side.”

Eventually he quit the Marin Corps to be back with his family, but his wife left him the following year and his life spiralled out of control. Schultz ended up living out of his truck, barely getting by.

In search of a place to stay, he finally checked into a Veterans Resource Center (VRC) in California, which provides housing and group therapy for former members of the military. 

This is my readjustment therapy… The way of life I learned in the Marines, it just doesn’t mix in society. So we’re learning how to adjust that, so I can maybe have a relationship with my children, my ex-wife, and next employer that doesn’t turn destructive,” says Schultz.

Scarred by war, many returning soldiers struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their inability to adjust from combat life to civilian life often leads to substance abuse and addiction, thus, finding support for healing and recovery is a constant challenge.

The VRC and its counselors help returning veterans find jobs and sort out supplemental government income, healthcare needs and their housing situation. 

“[The purpose of] A 30-bed transitional programme for homeless veterans… is [to have] self-sufficient income, so we help them apply for benefits, we help them go back to school or get employment,” explains Kendra Barter, VRC’s clinical director. 

The way of life I learned in the Marines, it just doesn't mix in society. So we're here learning how to adjust that, so I can maybe have a relationship with my children, my ex-wife, and next employer that doesn't turn destructive.

by Roger Schultz, veteran

“Each veteran is different, their needs are different and so we’re able to treat them to the root issues, whether it’s addiction, whether it’s mental health,” says Barter.

As the veterans come together in the VRC, they reveal the scars that the brutality of war have left behind and the importance of human connection in the face of a life-long emotional and psychological battle. 

“Part of the pathology of trauma in a veteran is them wanting to isolate from society, from each other; you just want to be left alone and that’s our biggest challenge,” says Marc Deal, VRC’s executive director.

“We fight desperately to get them out of their comfort zones and get them back together and get them to sit at a table, to make friends, you know, to do things that people in normal society do.”

Based in Santa Rosa, California, the nonprofit VRC was launched in 1980 by Vietnam veteran Peter Cameron to help returning members of the military find homes, jobs and healthy relationships. Funded mostly by federal grants, it has served over 13,000 veterans, with 13 branches in California, Nevada and Arizona.

In the United States, 22 million military veterans account for 7 percent of the population. But veterans make up about 12 percent of the adult homeless population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Black and Hispanic veterans are three times as likely to be homeless as veterans in general.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 9 out of 10 homeless veterans are male. A majority are single, live in urban areas and suffer from mental illness, physical disability or substance abuse. About half have served during the Vietnam era.

“There seems to be a large percentage of veterans that do come out a little broken, and for everybody, really, it’s a life-changing experience,” says Jason Henry, a Navy veteran and regional director at the VRC. “That’s what boot camp is all about. They take away your individualism, and they train all that stuff out of you so you follow orders.”

But, he continues, “There’s no out-training. They’re being trained to such a high degree to go over and fight … then they’re out one day. How is someone supposed to flip that switch? It doesn’t happen.”

During group therapy, folksinger David Morris, who performs melancholic music addressing veteran themes, tells a story of how he tried to save a colleague on the battlefield but was torn “to pieces” once he realised nothing could be done.

“In order to function in combat, a rational response would be to get the hell out of there,” he said. “But we cannot be rational, so we have to set aside the human response … You numb yourself to it because if you don’t, you’ll start screaming one day and never stop,” says Morris, who also suffers from PTSD.

Despite the quiet victories emerging from group therapy at VRC, countless veterans are unable to overcome their demons. The organisation tries to keep in touch with everyone who goes through its programme, but some graduates have been lost to suicide.

“These guys are heroes, they deserve the best of what we’ve got. We made a promise to these people and we need to keep it for once. We make a lot of promises, Americans, that we don’t keep, but this is one promise they need to keep. They need to take care of these people better,” says Deal.