Homelessness becomes the newest battleground Honoring veterans Helping veterans

November 11, 1991|By Jason DeParle | Jason DeParle,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, when Ken Smith made his first trip to the Vietnam Memorial, he saw something in its black granite reflection that he did not like: homeless veterans camped in the nearby bushes.

Mr. Smith, a Vietnam veteran himself, returned to his home in Boston and in December started the nation's largest shelter exclusively for homeless veterans.

It is a 10-story, 200-bed center where the homeless are organized in squads and platoons and where the cook calls himself a mess sergeant.

Across the country, the small veterans groups that used to provide counseling and job training in storefront centers increasingly have turned their attention to homelessness.

Although there is no precise count of homeless veterans, these groups say the number is rising, and in response they are opening shelters, group homes and clinics for drug and alcohol abuse exclusively for veterans, some with military-style discipline.

"There's the development of a national movement," Mr. Smithsaid. "We cannot tolerate that our brothers are on the streets, eating from Dumpsters."

The federal government has estimated that 150,000 to 250,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and that twice that number may be homeless in the course of a year. It says about a third of the nation's single homeless men are veterans.

Experts disagree on why.

Some say the rigors of military life, particularly in combat, induce mental and physical disorders; others argue that the military has simply drawn its recruits disproportionately from the poor.

Members of grass-roots groups such as Mr. Smith's say veterans often respond better when treated together. And they say they hope their movement, which has not yet been taken up by the large national veterans groups, foreshadows the emergence of homelessness among veterans as a national concern.

"It's a direct services movement, but it's also a 'Let's jack up the consciousness' movement," said Robert Van Keuren, director of Vietnam Veterans of San Diego.

The privately financed group is using a federal grant to convert an abandoned motel into a temporary home for veterans.

"People all over the country are saying, 'My God, how could we have so many people who served our country out on the streets?' " he said.

The movement comes amid frequent signs of a public backlash against the homeless that has included government sweeps of encampments. And the leaders of other advocacy groups for the homeless are welcoming veterans as allies.

"If anybody can shake some resources loose from this administration, poor veterans can do so," said Kim Hopper, president of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington-based group that will release a report today criticizing the government for not doing more to help homeless veterans.

"They have a different kind of claim to what they're owed by society."

Bill Elmore of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program in St. Louis agreed. Last year he helped organize a number of small veterans groups into a loose confederation, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans Service Providers, with affiliates in 39 cities.

Mr. Smith said many people in his Washington shelter suffer from problems that began in the military.

"The common denominator that I find is the effect of combat violence on the human psyche," said Mr. Smith, who was a combat medic in Vietnam.

But Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a Washington psychiatrist who is an authority on mental illness among the homeless, argues that the effects of combat stress are often exaggerated and that many veterans' problems preceded their military service.

"It's been a garbage-bag diagnosis," he said. "Everything gets dumped into it."

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