Contributing Factors to Veteran Homelessness in the Omaha Metro Area

Ethan Maas, Alison Anderson,  and Madison Calvillo

Veteran homelessness is a national issue and concern. Veterans are over represented among the homeless in the United States and are at a greater risk than non-veterans of becoming homeless. Homelessness is associated with chronic health conditions such as substance and drug abuse and mental health issues. It is essential that we understand the epidemiology of homelessness and the specific factors associated with increased risk of becoming homeless. Additionally, there are a growing number of homeless female U.S. veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has traditionally served a predominantly male population. We will examine the differences between homeless female and male veterans, including race, in their service needs and the current provisions of the VA homeless services. Specifically, in this paper we will focus on the sociological factors of gender and race, , substance abuse, and mental illness and how it effects the likelihood of homelessness among veterans around the Omaha metro.

Methodology

Our main resources will come from local homeless shelters, local articles and news stories, nationally published scholarly articles and interviews with VA personnel. After gathering data from these resources, we identified key themes that will help us understand why veterans become homeless. These themes are gender, race, substance abuse, and mental illness. The data that was collected was then compiled into an excel document where it was coded and divided under the themes that were observed. These sources will help us analyze a pattern in homelessness within the Omaha metro, and help us understand how these sociological factors, impact homelessness.

Findings

Gender and Race: Male veterans are over represented in the homeless population and the likelihood of homelessness depended on the ages of veterans. The odds of a veteran being homeless were highest for veterans who had enlisted after the military had transitioned to an all-volunteer force in 1973. Researchers have found that 41% of adult homeless men were veterans, compared to just under 34% of adult males in the general population. Black men have the highest population of veteran homelessness. Overall, male veterans were two times more likely to be homeless as non-veterans. Veterans who served after the Vietnam War were four times more likely to be homeless than non-veterans. Male veterans age 45-54 were 1.4 times more likely to be homeless than any other age group. As with male veterans, research has shown that women veterans are more likely to be homeless than women who are not veterans. Women constitute only a small portion of the sheltered homeless veteran population but that number is expected to increase. Women veterans have been found to be at a higher risk of being homeless than their male counterparts. Black women from the ages of 24 to 36 have the highest numbers of veteran homelessness. Compared to homeless male veterans, homeless female veterans are younger, less likely to be employed, more likely to have a major mental illness, but less likely to have a substance use disorder. Additionally, sexual assault during military service, being unemployed, being disabled and having worse physical and mental health were risk factors for homelessness among female veterans. Female veterans are more likely to be caring for dependent children than male veterans. From what I have read, it seems as though the VA health services are not attentive to women veteran health and to the health of their dependent children. Outreach for homeless female veterans continues to be important, especially because the VA is often a male-dominated environment that may not always be an appealing place for females to seek services. Given the needs of homeless female veterans, trauma-informed care and services that offer child care and parenting support should be encouraged and promoted, particularly in VA’s supported housing program where the majority of literally homeless female veterans are referred and admitted to. The VA needs to continue to adapt its homeless services to the increasing number of female veterans it will be serving. A sizable proportion of veterans who use VA homeless services are women and many present with different problems than male veterans. Although the VA has expanded the types of different homeless services they offer in recent years, permanent supported housing seems to be the primary method to help female veterans exit homelessness and additional resources may be needed to help them with their unique needs, including help with parenting and child care, trauma-informed care, and mental health treatment focused on effective regulation rather than substance abuse.

Substance Abuse: Every day in Omaha Nebraska the homeless population faces diverse hardships. In this part of the research, this section will examine substance abuse in relation to Veteran homelessness. The main source that contributed to the research on substance abuse came from Omaha’s local Francis house homeless shelter. On the Francis house website, statistics were gathered on a small portion of the homeless population served from January to December, 2016. In this data they surveyed 1,357 homeless people. Out of this portion of people, “530 reported having a drug or alcohol problem”(“Siena/Francis House,” 2016). Included in this data was a small portion of Omaha’s homeless veteran population. Out of the 530 reporting a substance abuse disorder, 110 were veterans. With that being the only substation evidence pertaining to that of substance abuse, it was noted on the Veteran Affairs website that statistically homeless veterans from all around the United States were similar. With that being said, Rosenheck and Frisman (1996) found “Higher total incomes were associated with higher levels of substance abuse among homeless veterans.” These types of income included hourly jobs, and money they received from the public. Another article from the Veteran Affairs Health Services provided data on what services were being used and what contributed to the likely hood of a veteran becoming homeless. “Characteristics such as being male, ages 40 to 65, black, and having a mental illness were predictive of veteran homelessness.” (Edens, Kasprow, Tsai, & Rosenheck, 2011). Most notably, the presence of any illegal drug use increased the odds of homelessness within veterans by eight times. In addition to that, alcoholism also increased a veteran’s odds by 5 times. In an additional study information was collected using secondary data analysis, and had participants complete a questionnaire on demographic, health variables, and self reported causes of homelessness. The results concluded that “Alcohol and drug problems were ranked as one of the highest factors contributing to veteran homelessness, and as one of the less reported factors contributing to non-veteran homelessness.” ( Dunne, et al.,2015). Lastly, a gender based comparison concluded that “Male veterans used more substance abuse out patience services then females.” ( Montgomery, Byrne, 2014). This could lead the reader to infer either males have a higher probability of substance abuse, or the higher number of males utilizing these services is simply a result of there being more male veterans then females. Viewed either way this research gave us insight of who was utilizing resources targeting substance abuse. Programs and shelters such as the Francis House in Omaha Nebraska are vital to homeless veterans. They provide a place to stay while they are combating their daily struggles, which for many includes overcoming substance abuse disorders.

Mental Health: Omaha, Nebraska is no stranger to homeless veterans who have and are dealing with a mental illness. Many of these shelters offer mental health services for the homeless veterans. The shelters in the local Omaha area are the Stephens Center HERO program, New Visions Dr. Maurice J. Hart Veteran Community living, Open Door Mission, Siena Francis House, and the local Nebraska-Western Iowa Veteran Affairs Hospital. All homeless shelters do have homeless veterans that use their facilities and programs, and the majority do come in with mental illnesses. The Stephens Center HERO program found that 5-6 veterans come in to the shelter at night, while the majority over time do come in with the mental illness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Another homeless shelter in Omaha, New Visions, lead by Dr. Maurice J. Hart website states that they help veterans in a “2-year transitional living program [that is] designed to help the veterans of the United States get back on their feet while aiding in their recovery from trauma, PTSD,” and other life issues that happen (“New Visions”, 2017). They have a 65 percent graduation rate from their program and the majority do come in with a mental illness, specifically PTSD. The Open-Door Mission is another homeless shelter that could not provide specific statistics but they do get veterans with mental illness and substance abuse problems that use their program. One more homeless shelter that offers mental health assistance for homeless veterans is the Siena Francis House. The Siena Francis house is one of the bigger homeless shelters that houses the homeless veterans at night. The Siena Francis house stated that in 2013 “that 71% of all homeless veterans in Omaha/Council Bluffs were staying at the Siena/Francis House” in one night (Clemson, D “Siena/Francis House Homeless Shelter”). Here at the Siena/Francis house they offer many programs which includes working with other treatment facilities to get the homeless veterans the mental health treatment necessary, as well as other programs such as the Miracles: Addiction and Recovery Center. Here veterans can receive substance abuse treatment as needed. The Nebraska-Western Iowa Veterans Affairs Hospital provided some statistics on PTSD, stating that every 7 or 8 people out of 100 experience some sort of trauma in their life. Many veterans are these people that endure this trauma due to high stress environments such as the military. However the Nebraska-Western Iowa Veterans Affairs Hospital has programs available for both veterans that have a home and those that are homeless. This program is called the Readjustment Counseling Service which helps to “identify homeless veterans and match homeless veterans with necessary services” that the veteran needs (US Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration). Whether it is temporary housing or therapy to aid with a mental illness, the Nebraska-Western Iowa Veteran Affairs clinic will help in any way. This program is found here at the local veteran affairs clinic, but is also offered at many other veteran affair clinics across the country.

Program Descriptions: Within the Veterans Administration system, there are five main programs that fall under the umbrella of VA homeless services. We will briefly describe them all. First, the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program offers homeless veterans HUD Housing Choice vouchers to subsidize their rent and supportive case management from VA staff to help them acquire and retain permanent housing. Second, the Grant and Per Diem program funds community agencies to provide structured transitional housing for homeless veterans where they can stay for up to 2 years with the goal of helping them to achieve residential stability, receive treatment for mental and addictive disorders, increase their skill levels and/or incomes, and obtain greater capacity for community reintegration. Third, the Healthcare for Re-entry Veterans program assists incarcerated veterans soon to be reentering the community by connecting them to needed VA health services to prevent re-offending and homelessness through outreach, pre-release assessments, and post-release referrals and linkages to medical, psychiatric, and social services. Fourth, the Veterans Justice Outreach program serves veterans recently involved in the criminal justice system to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration by providing direct outreach, assessment diversion, and case management services along with acting as a liaison with local courts, jails, and local justice system partners. Fifth, the Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans program provides time-limited residential rehabilitation and treatment services on VA grounds, including medical, psychiatric, substance abuse treatment, and vocational rehabilitation.

Analysis

The military is a complex phenomenon with a multitude of complexities. It is impossible to understand and solve its numerous problems without support of sociology. It is rightly said that we cannot understand and mend society without any knowledge of its mechanism and construction. Without the investigation carried out by sociology no real effective social planning would be possible. The study of military sociology will help us to determine the most efficient means for reaching the goals agreed upon. A certain amount of knowledge about military society is necessary before any social policies can be carried out. The present world of veteran homelessness is suffering from many problems, specifically mental illness and substance abuse. The military has a process of breaking down and then rebuilding its people to keep them standardized and into the military image. This works for the time a person is in the military, but after traumatic events or time in the military it can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Life after exiting the military can become very problematic for veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD. Crowds, loud noises, and other miscellaneous things that happen during a normal day can become a major issue for a veteran who is suffering from PTSD or any other mental illness. Many times, veterans that got through homeless shelters that have a mental illness, such as PTSD, concurrently have an issue with substance abuse. The link can be seen because a homeless veteran would self-medicate drugs to ease his or her mental illness. By understanding how PTSD and substance abuse starts in homeless veterans, it aids the scientific study of individual and military societies dealing with mental illnesses and substance abuse. It is the task of sociology to study the social problems through the methods of scientific research and to find solutions to them. This scientific research of specific societies will ultimately provide the body of knowledge and principles that will enable us to understand the conditions of veteran homelessness and in helping to improve upon this issue. Sociology has been instrumental in changing our attitude towards military personnel. In this specialized society, they are limited as to the amount of the whole organization and culture that can be experience directly. We can hardly know the people of this culture intimately unless you are in the culture yourself. To have insight into and appreciation of the intentions by which the military lives and the conditions under which they exist a knowledge of sociology is essential. Military sociology’s’ objectives are toward the organized study of the military as a social group rather than as a Military organization. It is a highly specialized sub-field which examines issues related to service personnel as a distinct group with shared interests linked to survival in vocation and combat, with purposes and values that are more defined and narrow than within civil society. Military sociology also concerns civil-military relations and interactions between other groups or governmental agencies. It is through the study of sociology that our whole outlook on various aspects of the military has changed. Specifically, homeless Veterans are now treated as human beings. Efforts are being made to help those suffering from mental deficiencies in order to rehabilitate them as useful members of society. Conclusion The findings in this paper accurately depicts how veterans in Omaha are over represented in the homeless population which is comparable to national data. For male veterans, those in the 45 to 54-year-old age group made up 41% of the homeless veterans and had the highest risk for becoming homeless. Among women, particularly black women, the youngest age groups were at highest risk for homelessness. Among our findings, it was concluded that abusing substances ranked as one of the highest factors contributing to veteran homelessness, and as one of the less reported factors contributing to non-veteran homelessness. All our local findings are consistent with national data. Mental illness affects the majority of homeless veterans around the Omaha metropolitan area. While all the homeless shelters offer programs to assist these veterans, it is best for the homeless veteran to determine which homeless shelter would be the best for that individual to seek treatment at.

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