The U.S. Vets Westside Residence Hall is a hulking
eight-story structure a few blocks from Los Angeles International Airport. It's
the largest transitional housing and employment center for homeless veterans
in the country, hosting 700 veterans annually.
Michael Hall is one of its residents. The 31-year-old Army staff sergeant enlisted
shortly after high school and served as a heavy equipment mechanic and technical
weapons specialist in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait, and Afghanistan before being severely
injured in Iraq in 2003.
"I was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade," Hall told IPS as he limped
into a recreation room on the building's ground floor. "I suffer from compression
of the spine. I used to be six foot four. Now I'm six two and a half."
"I got knocked through a wall," he added, almost as an afterthought.
The federal government's Veterans Administration considers Hall to be 100-percent
disabled. He has difficulty walking, dragging his feet with each step he takes.
He also suffers from mental problems bipolar disorder and post-traumatic
stress disorder conditions he didn't have before he went to Iraq.
Hall said his problems really started when he got back to the United States
and started using methamphetamines to dull the pain.
"I knew a lot of people who were killed in Iraq," he said, "so
the pain of losing loved ones on the battlefield, the pain of not being there
for my children, of not knowing how to live in this civilian society after so
many years in the military I stuffed these things down deep inside because
I considered myself a hard-core guy. But after the effects of the methamphetamine
went away, I still felt the same. No matter how much I could do or how much
I could smoke the results were the same. It was the insanity of it all."
Hall has four children, ages seven, four, two, and one. But his behavior since
being released from the military has kept him away from them. In addition to
using drugs, he started dealing as well. Since leaving the military in 2003,
he has served time in federal prison in Oklahoma for felony home invasion and
has had numerous other run-ins with the law. Within three years, he hit rock
bottom one of 27,000 homeless vets on the streets of Los Angeles.
Dwight Radcliff is chief operating officer of U.S. Vets, a public-private partnership
founded in 1993 to serve homeless veterans. He told IPS his organization is
increasingly coming into contact with relatively young homeless veterans involved
in custody disputes over their children.
"It's a sign of the times," he said. "It's a lot freer now than
even in the 1970s. So it's not surprising to see a veteran who is 23 years old
who has children, who cannot get along with the custodial parent who needs support
and help to navigate that system."
Radcliff added that the presence of those children can also be a motivator
to get the veteran off the streets and clean from drugs. For example, U.S. Vets
helped former Staff Sgt. Michael Hall win custody of his children after he got
off methamphetamine. The children are currently living with Hall's parents until
he finds a permanent place to live.
"These are guys who are pretty much going straight from deployment to
the streets," added Rachel Feldstein, associate director of New Directions,
a residential care center for homeless veterans inside the VA complex in West
Los Angeles. She says veterans of the Iraq war are becoming homeless much more
quickly than Vietnam vets.
While about half of the estimated 400,000 homeless veterans served during the
Vietnam years, Feldstein said most did not usually become homeless until nine
to 12 years after their discharge.
Already, she said, Iraq war vets are living on the streets of Los Angeles,
getting seriously addicted to drugs and falling into criminal behavior, she
Firm estimates of the number of homeless Iraq war veterans are hard to come
by. In June 2005, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported the
number of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) veterans
seeking assistance from community-based homeless services providers had exceeded
The group Veterans for America, formerly the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation,
estimates that 10,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are now living on the
Sixteen Iraq war veterans have entered residential drug rehab at New Directions
over the last four years. Most have been referred to the program as an alternative
sentence after being convicted of a crime.
"What's unique about the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan
is that they're not able to integrate with their family," Feldstein said.
"They've seen horrible things. They've been in horrible places and their
family can't relate. And so you become homeless in the last place you lived."
Activists concerned about increases in the number of homeless veterans argue
for greater federal investment in affordable housing and social services. Of
particular concern is the wait for mental health care, which can run as long
as six months.
A recent study by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that by the
time the Iraq and Afghanistan wars end, there will be at least two and a half
million vets. Because of that, the Harvard study concluded, Congress will have
to double the VA's budget simply to avoid cutting services.
(Inter Press Service)