The Face of Veteran Homelessness

By Jamie DePaola

It’s not easy for anyone to look in the mirror and proclaim, “I’m ignorant!”  Recently, I have discovered that’s exactly how I have been with regard to the homeless; in particular, homeless veterans.

This newsflash to my own face, came about after welcoming a sister Marine to my Area and learning about her unfortunate situation.  She didn’t seem to fit the “profile” of a homeless veteran.  Then I wondered, “What exactly is the profile of a homeless veteran?”

With the holiday season amidst all the good cheer, I have paused to try to see the face of homeless veterans.  Who are they?  How did they get here?  I have seen them on corners with signs saying they will work for food.  I used to imagine myself yelling out to them that “There is a job two buildings away looking to hire staff, “Go apply!”   I didn’t take the time to understand how they became homeless, nor how can I help them get out of the homeless situation.

Like many, I got caught up in the spirit of the traditional toys-for-tots programs and good will toward senior citizens during the holidays.   I just didn’t know how bad things were for veterans; which is why I now say I was ignorant.  I didn’t know how much they appreciated a new pair of socks or a new coat.  I didn’t take the time to “know” them.  With all the great programs that the military offers to help veterans transition back to civilian life, I also didn’t understand why they would commit suicide when they came home.  Here’s a summary of what I believe, and some of what I’ve learned in a very short time:

Profile of a homeless veteran:

  1. They came home from the military, …and then they became homeless.
  2. At a young age, they’ve done more and seen more in a lifetime — from their military training to the hostile environments they were immersed in.  They put everything on the line with sharpened skills like no other.  They were in charge of the world and believed they could do anything to make our world safer.  They are trained to be leaders and have courage and skills to take on whatever mission assigned to them.
  3. Compared to their past military life, being around civilians and family can be too provincial.  They came home changed, but the rest of their family/friends have not changed.  Emotionally, they don’t fit in.  Nobody “gets” them.  Their friends/family can’t accept who they’ve become as they are trying to adapt back to civilian life as they once knew.  Their family/friends often wonder “what happened to them or what’s wrong with them?”
  4. They often become estranged from loved ones due to combat or non-combat PTSD, and many females due to MST that leads to PTSD.  They have a difficult time relating to others at home.  They cannot emotionally get the turmoil out of their heads and family/friends do not know how to help because they haven’t walked a day in their boots.  Family/Friends may think they know how to help the veteran but they don’t.  They want to “fix” their vet instead of embrace the new and changed person who is trying to come “home again.”
  5. In past wars, faith and family and society were tightly woven and was a safety net when a vet came home.  That isn’t the norm anymore.  Many families are now broken and dysfunctional.  The vet is now discovering he or she felt most at home with fellow vets.  He/She is understood in the military world, now called home.
  6. Most veterans have a patriotic and servant’s heart; which explains why they volunteered to serve our country in the first place.  They come home and hope to continue serving, but they struggle with finding purpose and identity in their new community.
  7. The homeless female veteran population seems to be growing, but there are fewer services to help them at this point.  Many are mothers and trying to protect their children in a safe and healthy environment.  These women struggle with the same emotions listed above, but women normally don’t seek help until it’s often too late.
  8. The profile of a women veteran is different in just a few ways.  Women know they are going to be facing the giants, both physically and emotionally, before they ever take the oath to serve our country.  They must always try harder to meet the expectations that serving in the military requires.  It is not easy being a woman in the military; but that has never stopped women from serving.  From World War I to current day, women have evolved into a combat-ready machine with physical and emotional strength and skills that far outweigh that of other women.  Hence, these female veterans are slow to ask for help — because they have always had to do it on their own.  They are looking for purpose and identity in their communities too; but they are seen by family and friends as too aggressive, too outspoken, too commanding, too decisive, too deliberate, …too everything.  Those characteristics are perfect and expected for a man, but not expected of a woman in our society and are often shunned by friends and family because of this too.  Women have changed significantly as they have fully integrated into all military occupations.  The problem is, society has not prepared itself to welcome home this changed woman; even though they created her.  So, this female veteran once again sucks it up and takes the blows of society now too.  She finds she is only comfortable with other brother and sister veterans, because nobody else “gets” her.

This is the “face” of the homeless veteran to me.  They are heroes too.  They were once strong and sure of themselves, but are now just lost and have emotionally gotten themselves into a very bad situation that is alone and away from loved ones.  They are often paranoid and unsure of themselves, but want to find purpose and identity again.  Many are too afraid to see their own face and they definitely don’t want their loved ones to see them in this way.

The VA offers great programs to help them.  But society must to do their part too.


Semper Fi,

Jamie DePaola

Women Marines Association Area 1 Director.