Although a new federal report shows veteran homelessness has dropped, grassroots advocates say the number of young former service members living on the streets is on the rise.
According to a report released Monday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, veteran homelessness fell by 7.2 percent between 2011 and 2012. While that decline –- which is being attributed to pointed preventative measures –- is heartening, advocates working on the ground remain concerned about the number of post-9/11 veterans living on the streets.
“It used to be where a homeless vet was typically about 60 years old,” Joe Leal, co-founder of Vet Hunters, a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans, told NBC. “Now, they’re 22 years old. And a lot of them are female veterans who have witnessed combat. They are coming back messed up. They are coming back homeless.”
While some advocates, like Leal, are suspicious of the value of HUD's figures on veteran homelessness, President Obama's administration is confident about the effectiveness of its homeless services programs.
“This report continues a trend that clearly indicates we are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among Veterans,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a release.
The administration has attributed the nearly 5,000-person decline in vets sleeping on the streets (from 67,495 in 2011 to 62,619 in January 2012) to two new programs. HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs partnered to develop a comprehensive housing program that provides both shelter and supportive services to address mental illness, substance addiction and other challenges. To date, the initiative has helped more than 42,000 homeless veterans find permanent supportive housing, according to a HUD press release.
HUD says the agency has also succeeded in implementing effective preventative measures. When veterans face sudden hardship, and just need help paying a month’s rent or a utility bill, they can turn to the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, which HUD says has helped more 1.3 million people avoid homelessness.
“While this is encouraging news," Shinseki said, "we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no veteran has to sleep on the street.”
Much of the work that needs to be done, Leal says, is addressing the specific challenges faced by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Leal, who has helped thousands of homeless vets, told NBC that they are often so “fed up” after they finish their deployments that they simply return home without a plan in place.
One such veteran is 31-year-old Jason Snyder, who cleaned up the remains of soldiers blown up by IEDs in Afghanistan. In an interview with The Huffington Post last month, Snyder said that he, his wife and young daughter have struggled to find a place to live and now sleep on the floor of a mechanic shop in Ontario, Calif.
“I put in 10 years. But I didn’t really feel that my service was appreciated,” Snyder said. “I thought that we kind of got kicked to the curb.”
Click through the slideshow below to see photos of the Vet Hunters Project at work.
Photos: Mellanie Villarreal/Facebook