The Homeless 'Vets' Who Aren't

January 01, 2007  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The New York Post  ·  Military


Vets are overrepresented among the homeless because men are and 93 percent of vets are males.

The homeless-advocacy industry always puts the most sympathetic face on its "clientele." It works desperately to divert attention from alcoholics, drug users, schizophrenics, and fat panhandlers holding signs reading: "Hungry."

And it doesn't talk about unpleasant truths like those reported by ABC's John Stossel (viewable on YouTube) – who, after exhaustive efforts, managed to find only one person with a sign reading "Will work for food" who would actually do so.

Instead, advocates focus (with the media's help) on unrepresentative but heart-tugging cases – like veterans.

Eleven years ago, I debunked a "study" claiming a third of all men in homeless shelters were vets – noting it was based entirely on the men's own claims, and that claiming to be a vet is a favorite panhandler ploy.

But comes now a new "study" from the Homeless Research Institute (HRI), the research arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It claims government data show that vets are more than twice as likely to be "homeless" as non-vets – that is, that vets make up 11 percent of the adult US population, but 26 percent of the labeled homeless.

The 29-page report also insists it's a myth that substance abuse and/or mental illness is at the heart of the homelessness problem; rather, it's "lack of affordable housing." And, naturally, it's the job of an expanded government to make that housing affordable.

HRI's claims are false on both the "veteran disparity" and the causes of homelessness. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, says only 18.7 percent of homeless are veterans (albeit based on incomplete data), and that's down from 23 percent in 1996.

That still leaves vets seeming to be disproportionately homeless. But you have to account for two facts: the demographics of those in homeless shelters differ vastly from those not homeless, as do demographics of veterans and non-vets.

Most important: Among adults in homeless shelters, males outnumber females by three to one, while females outnumber males in the general adult population. And 93 percent of all veterans are male.

So HRI didn't really measure the disparate homeless rate of vets; at best it restated the obvious – that men are a lot more likely to be homeless than women.

On to HRI's claim for the cause of vets' homelessness – namely, that it's mainly the non-affordability of housing.

As HRI admits, veterans generally are more educated and more employed than those with similar demographics in the general population; they earn more, too. In fact, veterans’ poverty rates are about half that of non-veterans. That doesn't exactly explain why vets are less able to afford housing . . .

In fact, to live or work near homeless populations is to sadly observe that many won't even avail themselves of the shelters – you see them on cold winter nights sleeping on heating vents and covered with blankets provided by city workers who couldn't coax them inside.

And decades of empirical research support what those of us who regularly encounter the homeless readily observe: They aren't just like you and me, minus a home. Their major defining features are indeed alcohol and drug abuse, along with mental illness.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 70 percent of homeless vets suffer from alcohol- or other substance-abuse, while 45 percent are mentally ill. Obviously, there's overlap between those groups (since they add up to 115 percent), but between them there's little room for the "non-affordable housing" baloney.

Further, for the general homeless population, those sad figures are even higher.


Alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness are all intractable problems but they are the cause of homelessness; not just not having a home.

Three years ago, researchers at Washington University of Medicine in St. Louis published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health on the results of three different studies conducted at homeless shelters (one each for 1980, 1990 and 2000). In the latest assessment, a stunning 84 percent of the homeless men and 58 percent of the women suffered from substance abuse. Worse, 88 percent of the men and 69 percent of the women had psychiatric disorders.

Note the far higher rates of both substance abuse and mental illness among the men than among the women; then recall that homeless men outnumber women by three to one. That's highly suggestive that it's the substance abuse and mental illness that's tied to homelessness – and that men's greater rates of the former explain why they make up most homeless.

HRI does admit that homeless vets have a high rate of psychiatric illness. But it claims they have a special reason for mental illness: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their military service.

Obviously, there is some PTSD among homeless vets. Problem is, most vets served only in peacetime. We've had 17 years of "hot wars" in the 62 years since 1945 – and even most wartime vets never saw combat. (Another problem: Homeless vets suffer mental illness at half the rate of the general homeless population – strongly suggesting that PTSD is not a big factor.)

Not that HRI cares about any of this. Substance abuse and mental illness isn't its shtick; raising "awareness" – and hence money to expand the welfare state with more subsidized housing – is. You can count on the advocates to keep on pursuing that agenda no matter how much it harms the homeless by removing the focus from their real problems.