Claims about homeless vets don't add up

October 24, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Our soldiers in Iraq face an array of dangers, including hostile fire, accidents and suicide. But apparently they are not out of the woods once they return to the United States. Here, we are told, they confront another serious hazard: homelessness.

"I think that Americans would be shocked to learn that just by serving in the military, you increase your risk of becoming homeless," Linda Boone of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) recently told National Public Radio. Veterans, she said, account for 9 percent of the U.S. population but 28 percent of the homeless. Her group is pushing various spending measures to help homeless veterans. "America needs to wake up," said Ms. Boone.

Does it really? The grizzled panhandler in a tattered Army jacket is a familiar feature of America's seamy side. But impressions can be misleading. The available evidence doesn't support the picture of rampant homelessness among former military personnel. And there is no reason at all to fear that joining will somehow impede your ability to keep a roof over your head.

It's not surprising that veterans would make up a bigger share of the homeless population than they do of the general population. That's because they're concentrated in the group most at risk. Most veterans are adult males, and most of the homeless are adult males. Since veterans constitute about a quarter of men over 18, you'd expect them to constitute about a quarter of homeless men.

The evidence suggesting they suffer disproportionately from this malady is less than overwhelming. Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos makes a practice, when encountering a panhandler who claims to be a veteran, of asking his MOS - short for "military occupational specialty." Any veteran would know the answer, but Mr. Moskos says, "They give me a blank look." He dismisses the notion of widespread homelessness among veterans as "an urban legend."

Other experts are less skeptical, but the evidence of an acute problem is sparse. Robert Rosenheck, a Yale University psychiatry professor, has conducted extensive surveys that suggest homelessness is only "slightly more common among veterans."

That difference, he says, arises mostly because of high rates of homelessness among those who served in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, between 1973 and 1980 - when pay, prestige and recruiting standards were relatively low. Vietnam veterans are only slightly overrepresented among those eating in soup kitchens. Veterans of World War II and the Korean War, by contrast, are underrepresented.

Mr. Rosenheck's studies raise doubts about whether military service has anything to do with the problem. The average time it takes someone to become homeless after leaving the military is 12 years. If experiences in uniform were destroying psyches, you'd expect the effects to show up sooner than that. As it happens, most homeless veterans say their military service didn't increase their risk.

Contrary to myth, says Mr. Rosenheck, "post-traumatic stress disorder" doesn't seem to be a factor fostering homelessness among veterans. So what might cause it? He suspects that by going into the armed forces, people may disrupt their ties to a social network, leaving them with fewer informal sources of help in times of trouble. But he also says they may have had fewer social connections before they enlisted.

Even Mr. Rosenheck's estimates may overstate the numbers of veterans on the streets. It depends on "self-reporting," which means it counts as a veteran anyone who claims to be a veteran. But as Mr. Moskos has found, some people invent military credentials they didn't earn. Absent some airtight method of verifying such claims, they can't necessarily be taken at face value.

None of this means we shouldn't try to help veterans who fall between the cracks, or that the military shouldn't prepare its personnel for civilian life. But hyping the problem obscures the real causes of homelessness, thus impeding solutions. And it threatens to stigmatize all veterans as psychological wrecks who are prone to self-destruction - when most are actually productive, fully functioning citizens.

Of course, you might find a veteran by looking for a bleary-eyed man sitting on the sidewalk with a tin cup. But you'd have better luck among the guys discussing mortgage rates at the American Legion hall.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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