The number of homeless military veterans across the United States — at least 50,000 in January 2014 and 48,000 in January 2015, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness — underscores the devastating mental, emotional and physical wounds of war that afflict the nation’s heroes long after the battle ends.
But there are almost certainly more homeless vets living in the shadows of the highway overpasses and Main Street missions, uncounted and disconnected from treatment and services.
“It’s been here since the ’70s,” Robert, 38, a homeless Marine Corps veteran living under the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville, said of veterans slipping through the cracks and onto the streets.
The toll is no secret to federal, state and local agencies now working together to achieve an ambitious goal: end homelessness among vets.
A survey and count of homeless veterans will be conducted all this week, beginning today, across Georgia to get a handle on how big that challenge is locally.
“The registry will help us connect veterans with appropriate housing and services in their area,” said Katie Arce, data coordinator for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. “This is the first year that we have done a veterans registry, and we are fortunate to have approximately 95 counties covered (including Hall) ... which is the most we have had for a homeless count of any kind.”
Action Ministries, Inc., a nonprofit based in Atlanta with an office in Gainesville, will conduct the count in Hall County.
Officials in New Orleans reported that it had placed all known homeless veterans, nearly 230 total, in housing last year, the first big city to do so.
But Georgia isn’t faring as well.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that veteran homelessness actually declined 36 percent between 2010 and January 2015 nationwide thanks to rapid re-housing initiatives and other programs.
In Georgia, however, the number of chronically homeless individuals has risen to 16 percent of the state total from 13 percent in 2013.
And veterans account for a solid 10 percent of all homeless individuals in Georgia, according to figures from the state DCA’s 152-county estimate conducted last year, which is up from 7 percent in 2013.
That count excluded some large counties, such as Cobb and Fulton, which perform their own counts.
Sitting around a barrel fire on Easter Sunday as the drizzle and mist enveloped the homeless camp, Robert thought long about the renewed focus on homeless veterans.
“Where they been?” he asked.
Robert said he entered the military in 1996 and served for about eight years before leaving to rejoin civilian life.
But that transition proved to be the hardest fight of his life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were difficult enough to manage. But shortly after he returned home, Robert’s father passed away. Divorce and alcoholism then followed, he said.
Into the cycle of poverty and homelessness he fell, but Robert doesn’t exhibit a trace of self-pity.
He works in local poultry plants as often as possible, saving a little money here and there.
Robert said he believes many vets end up on the streets because care for them at VA hospitals is inadequate.
The homeless count and survey collects information from transient individuals, including housing status, income levels and other factors that affect living conditions.
It’s an important part of securing federal and state funding for homeless assistance programs.
Earlier this year, for example, HUD announced that Georgia would receive more than $33 million in grant funding for programs to assist the homeless.
Robert said surveys of homeless veterans need to consider what life is like for him and others.
Keeping a routine, holding down a job and staying sober when you live under a bridge is no easy feat, he said. Uncertainty awaits you every morning and night.
This is why more and more governments and nonprofits are focusing on housing first as a way to stabilize the lives of the homeless.
Only with a roof over one’s head, the concept goes, can a homeless individual have any reasonable expectation of getting clean and re-entering the workforce.
Robert described the foundation of his life as mud, unable to move forward when he keeps sinking deeper under the weight of homelessness.
“It’s hard to bounce back,” he said.