WASHINGTON – At the age of 24, Dane Horton Sr. left the U.S. Navy with a number of battle wounds—some physical, some invisible. After serving in the Persian Gulf during the Iran crisis, he returned home to face several new obstacles: pancreatitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, depression and homelessness.
“Not too many people would be happy going into the service and all of a sudden getting a sickness they’ve never had before,” he said, looking back almost 30 years later. “I paid the ultimate price.”
Horton was one of more that 350 homeless veterans who came to an annual health, housing and job fair at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center Saturday. At the Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down, veterans received medical screenings, mental health consultations, employment support and housing services.
“We owe so much to our veterans, and we’re here to see that they receive the care and attention they need and have earned,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the medical center. “If one homeless veteran exists, that’s one too many, and that’s unacceptable.”
Rivera said the Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down was an opportunity for the medical center to reach out to veterans struggling to reintegrate into society. “Stand down” is a military expression to describe the process of relaxation after a state of order or alert—and it can often be one of the hardest tasks for veterans returning home.
Like Horton, many military veterans suffer from nervousness or PTSD, a severe anxiety disorder which may develop after a psychologically traumatic event like war.
PTSD can make it nearly impossible for some veterans to hold a steady job, maintain relationships and adjust to civilian life. When compounded with limited access to affordable housing, health care and social support systems, such mental health concerns often push veterans out onto the streets.
“The homeless aspect is the most visible, but it’s just the last wrung on the downward spiral of missed opportunities,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, who made an appearance at the health and job fair. “If we’re not doing something about all the rest of this, we’ll be managing just the most visible problem. We’ll never cure the root of it.”
About 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans are homeless on any given night, and twice that number are homeless at some point during each year, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans estimates that one out of every three homeless men once served the country.
“There are still many Vietnam veterans on the streets, 40 years later,” said Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran himself. “I think the message is that if we don’t go after this aggressively, 40 years from now there will be veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in the same situation.”
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans comprise only three percent of homeless veterans, but they tend to become homeless faster than veterans from previous wars, according to a 2007 study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Many become homeless within 18 months, compared to a five or 10-year readjustment period for most Vietnam War veterans.
Last November, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a five-year plan to eliminate homelessness among veterans, pledging $3.2 billion to a comprehensive effort for better health care, employment assistance and housing options.
The health and job fair at the medical center complemented the VA’s plan, bringing together more than 40 community agencies to provide flu shots, physical exams, psycho-social referrals, employment support, housing assistance, veterans' benefits counseling, tax return guidance, haircuts and free meals.
“[Fighting] homelessness is not just about providing housing or shelter,” said Rivera. “It’s about providing education, employment and health care needs. From the medical center’s perspective, we’re not simply landlords.”
Veterans who attended said the event was only a small sample of the assistance available at the medical center on a regular basis.
Denise Francis-El, a former member of the Army and the National Guard, said the medical center is also making a strong effort to assist female veterans, specifically through counseling sessions for victims of sexual assault.
“They’re putting out more information,” she said. “They have counseling and more services now. They have different clinics that are working, too.”
Rivera said the hospital tries to create a safe, welcoming environment for all of its veterans.
For Horton, the VA housing and health care services have been real life-savers. After years on the street, the 50-year-old veteran has found temporary housing and continues to make progress in his health recovery. He has confronted his addictions with psychiatric therapy, and after six years of sobriety, he said he feels stronger than ever.
“The veterans took real good care of me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them teaching me to deal with certain things, I don’t think I’d be living. I’m ready to deal with things now.”