One Thursday in April 2005, members of COVO went to a site where homeless people gather for hot coffee and day-old-pastries. Of the thirteen individuals who showed up that day, five were veterans. Two had served in Vietnam, two had served during times of peace, and one young man had served in the Persian Gulf War. He had the look--the "stare"--and we knew instinctively that he needed help. This young man had seen heavy combat as a Marine reconnaissance team member and he had been homeless for most of the past ten years, living at various shelters around the country. After talking with him, we knew he needed help with employment and possible benefits from the VA. It was clear to us that he had post traumatic stress disorder, having fought substance abuse problems, failed relationships and many of the other primary symptoms of PTSD since his honorable discharge. Despite the fact that COVO was not yet incorporated, we made a decision to help our younger brother.
Thanks to the Bend office of the Oregon Veterans Employment Service and COVO's Outreach Coordinator, Jim Gunn, and Board of Directors member, Dick Gorby, this young man found a full-time job and we began assisting him with access to the VA medical system and benefits process. Based upon our research and extrapolating from national statistics, we now know that during any given year, there will be at least 1,600 homeless veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon. In that regard, there is not a single homeless program in the eighteen counties east of the Cascades that is veteran-specific and none of the homeless shelters outside Bend has set aside beds for veterans. In fact, we know from talking with shelter providers in our area of operations that at least 25% of the homeless men seeking shelter are veterans. Thanks to COVO and Board member Liz Hitt, who is also the Executive Director of the Bethlehem Inn, we now have four beds in Bend specifically for veterans.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, "Nearly one-third of Oregon's homeless people are veterans...Oregon is part of a DVA network that includes Alaska, Idaho and Washington. This network reported the highest percentage of homeless veterans hospitalized for mental health reasons [in 2004] (47.5 percent), which is almost 23 percentage points higher than the DVA's national average (27.9 percent). The [regional VA] network ranked fifth in the nation for the percentage of homeless veterans with acute psychiatric disorders (27.9 percent) and fourth in the nation for admissions of homeless veterans with substance abuse problems (60 percent, which is nearly double the national average of 35.3 percent)."
As veterans of the Vietnam War, or service during the Vietnam era and the Persian Gulf War, the officers, directors and staff of COVO have made a decision to help those veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon who are homeless, at risk of being homeless, or among the working poor.
If you are experiencing these kinds of events, you should contact the nearest VA Medical Center at 1-800-949-1004 and make an appointment to be seen there, or at the nearest VA Primary Care Clinic. If you live in Central or Eastern Oregon, COVO can help you with the process. Call us at 541-383-2793.
-Mentally replaying trauma or having flashbacks.
-Having disturbing dreams or nightmares.
-Avoiding people, places or things that remind you of trauma.
-Feeling isolated, withdrawn, sullen or uncommunicative.
-Alienating yourself from others and society.
-Feeling down, depressed or hopeless. Lost interest in life.
-Shutting down and experiencing emotional numbness.
-Using alcohol or drugs more.
-Feeling unsafe, on guard. Easily startled or jumpy.
-Feeling irritable and prone to outbursts of anger.
-Having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep.
-Feeling anxious, apprehensive, panicky or stressed out.
-Having problems with attention and memory.
Some of your sons and daughters, your neighbors' sons and daughters, either already need this program, or they will in the future. One of the things about post traumatic stress disorder and its various symptoms is that in many cases the illness does not manifest itself until years after the traumatic event occurs. Some thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, veterans now in their late fifties and early sixties are coming to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the first time, seeking treatment for PTSD, years of substance abuse and combat-related medical problems.
Given the very nature of the subsequent wars and conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Beirut, Somalia, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no doubt that many veterans of those wars either do, or will, have PTSD. Recent news stories have reported that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are already showing up in homeless shelters and the military estimates that as many as 30% of combat veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan will return with some level of PTSD.
According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that as of July , nearly 28,000 veterans from Iraq sought healthcare from the VA. One out of every five was diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the VA. An Army study showed that 17 percent of service members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD. Today, in mid-2006, the military is reporting that as many as 30% of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have reported mental health problems and a March 2006 article in the Bend Bulletin made it clear that soldiers from local National Guard units are facing the same types of problems seen in veterans from the Vietnam War.
To be blunt, we owe these men and women--who have helped defend this country time and again-- warm and safe shelter, nourishing food, medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, education and employment training. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that they can only provides for about 20% of the homeless veteran population each year and, so, local communities must pick up the slack to see that the other 80% are properly cared for. Therefore, assuming that the DVA provides necessary care and shelter for some 320 homeless veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon in a given year, it is a moral imperative that local communities find the resources to care for the other approximately 1,280 homeless veterans that the DVA will not reach in that same year. These figures may well be higher since the State of Oregon estimates that nearly one-third of Oregon's homeless people are veterans. If these figures are closer to the real situation for homeless veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon, then we can estimate that there might be as many as 1,531 homeless veterans during a year who are not receiving adequate services from the VA. Finally, the numbers of veterans needing emergency assistance increase when you include at-risk veterans, and veterans living in poverty.
Although it may seem to some like a simplistic and arrogant claim, the truth is that the people of the United States owe their very freedom to the men and women who have defended them since the American Revolution. This past summer, a number of the members of High Desert Chapter 820, Vietnam Veterans of America, participated in a community service project during the weekly "Munch 'n' Music" festivities at Drake Park in Bend. During one such event, a young mother and her son came to the VVA table and the mother said to her son, "These men fought for their country so that you could be free." You can try to lessen the statement made by this young woman, but the reality is that it was a true statement. It is, therefore, incumbent upon COVO and other veterans' self-help organizations, working in conjunction with local government agencies and other community-based social services organizations, to see that homeless veterans of all wars and eras get the complete benefit of their sacrifices. No less is true for the homeless, at-risk and low income veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon. COVO intends to make sure that no veteran in need in our communities is left behind.