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Military Veterans - A Week With Chicago's Homeless.

The most recent data say that 14.6% of Chicago’s unsheltered homeless are veterans – more than half of whom served in Viet Nam, the Persian Gulf or Iraq. And while progress has been made on reducing homelessness among our veteran population nationally, Illinois is still ranked among the top 10 states with the largest veteran homeless population.

As we continue our exploration this week of who Chicago’s homeless are, we know that veterans who become homeless have a particularly difficult experience:

· They are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans.

· They remain homeless longer – 6 years on average, compared to 4 years for the non-veteran homeless population.

While we believe that nobody should be homeless, the experience of homelessness amongst those who have sacrificed so much in service of their country makes the issue of veteran homelessness particularly troublesome.

For many veterans, the causes of their homelessness are rooted in their military service.

MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES. A common cause of veteran homelessness is the effect of poor mental health on the ability to live a mainstream life. One in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression. Just over half of those vets sought treatment, and only half of those who did received minimally adequate treatment.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE ISSUES. To cope with PTSD and other stressors, many veterans have self-medicated with drugs or alcohol - a staggering two thirds of homeless veterans have a substance abuse problem.

PHYSICAL HEALTH ISSUES. For many veterans, coming back from war also means returning home with a physical disability that will make it difficult to resume their normal life activities. A Census Bureau report found that 22% of veterans have a service-connected disability rating of 70 or more (on a scale of 0 to 100) – which is defined as “one that was a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service.”

MARITAL AND FAMILY STRESS. Research shows that the longer a person is deployed, the greater the risk of divorce is in their relationship. For female service members, there is now a 50% chance of seeing her marriage fail during the first five years when a combat tour was part of her service. For all military personnel, the overall divorce rate increased from 2011 to 2011 by more than 42%. This lack of a social safety net from frayed family relationships can contribute to incidents of homelessness.

While issues tied to a veteran’s service often contribute to their homelessness, they also create needs that are unique to this population.

In addition to all of the typical things the general homeless population needs, homeless veterans have a particular need for community. The general homeless population tends to have limited social interaction, and becomes distrustful of authority figures or others who might help as a result. But for homeless veterans, the need is even stronger. Immediately after discharge from service, 1 in 5 veterans are socially isolated, living alone. Without trusted people they can turn to for help or temporary support in a crisis (which may be the dissolution of their marriage or bouts of PTDS and anxiety), their incidents of homelessness become more frequent and last longer.

Homeless veterans also are in particular need of access to mental health services. While it is estimated that 45% of the general homeless population suffers some level of mental illness, up to 80% of homeless veterans do.

Additionally, homeless veterans are in particular need of assistance with physical disabilities. The average wait to get a disability claim processed is now 8 months, with payments ranging from $127/month to $2769. For injured veterans, return from service and re-entry into civilian life also requires learning how to do new jobs and perform daily functions in a different way than they did before deployment.

What We Are Doing

At Care For Friends, we connect Chicago’s most vulnerable with the resources they need to achieve a better quality of life. With 15,000 homeless contact per year, we create a community that doesn’t just connect Chicago homeless with basic needs like food and hygiene, but also connection to job training, housing, and better mental and physical health.

We know that our newly-launched mental health services are a key component to helping our veteran guests address the issues that are causing their homelessness and building the trust needed to take advantage of the veteran housing services that we can offer them.

To support these initiatives, we will be hosting our annual “Sleepout For Homelessness” where we plan on having 200 individuals spend one night with us to fund a year’s worth of service. Learn more about the event (and sign up as a sleeper, supporter, or volunteer) at

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