Based in Santa Rosa, California, the nonprofit VRC was launched in 1980 by 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 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 vets in general.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 9 out of 10 homeless veterans are male. A majority are single and live in urban areas and suffer from mental illness, physical disability or substance abuse. About half 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,” said 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 continued, “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.”
Folksinger David Morris, who performs melancholic music addressing veteran themes, offered a story of how he tried to save a colleague on the battlefield but was torn “to pieces” once he realized 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.”
While Barack Obama’s administration has said reforms at the VA have reduced wait times for doctor appointments, critics say that change has not come fast enough under new Secretary Robert McDonald. Scandals over delays in delivering health care have plagued the department.
Every year, the VA provides health care for about 150,000 homeless veterans and other services to more than 100,000. But according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the most effective form of care is community-based transitional housing that allows veterans to live and tackle their problems alongside fellow vets.