Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Housing Durham’s homeless veterans

By Bob Wilson

The last mile in a race is always the hardest.

When Durham accepted President Obama’s challenge to end veteran homelessness here by the end of 2015, it knew the task would be vexing because of the many variables inherent in serving this distinct subset of the population.

About 80 homeless vets in Durham are still without safe, year-round shelter. They are the last of a group that originally numbered around 260.

It’s difficult for me, as a vet myself, to think that men (and a few women) who served their country are living under bridges, in woodland camps or wherever they can find refuge from the storm.

Yes, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is real. It has always been present in some vets. I imagine Greek hoplites and Roman legionaries who fought in the stab-and-slash wars of their era suffered from it as much as modern soldiers do.

The name has evolved over the last 100 years, from shell shock (World War I) to battle fatigue (World War II) to PTSD (Vietnam), but the psycho-social effects are the same by any moniker. They don’t change.

Still, we need to be honest about PTSD and the veteran community. I may well be wrong, but I’ve thought for decades now that the diagnosis of PTSD has expanded to the point where virtually any vet can claim to suffer from it.

Most vets, of course, don’t wake up with night terrors or other manifestations of PTSD. But the very mention of the term in connection with finding a housing authority or private landlord who will take in a homeless vet is enough to slam the door.

In fact, Veterans Affairs studies show that many vets fell into the homelessness crevasse because they lack the social-financial safety net that helps us absorb the stresses and shocks of daily life.

It is all too easy for a vet adrift in a society that’s comfortable with sending him or her into harm’s way only to relegate the returning warrior to a low level of concern, to feel used and discarded. That’s been especially prevalent from Vietnam to the present day.

Substance abuse among homeless vets is much more common than PTSD as the major factor in their failure to thrive. And if you think the problem is something peculiar to the post-Vietnam generation of vets, think again.

The Civil War is sometimes described as the first modern war because of its technological advancement in weapons, logistics and medicine. One of the medical achievements was pain relief in the form of morphine, a first cousin of heroin and just as addictive.P

By some estimates, Union Army physicians dispensed 10 million doses of morphine. The Confederate Army used the drug to a lesser extent.

Whatever the extent of its use, historians believe 200,000 to 500,000 men were addicted to morphine or other narcotic drugs in the decades after the war, a further drag on a nation that had lost 500,000 dead from 1861 to 1865.

Today we know much more about the psychological and physical effects of war on warriors. Knowledge and quality of care, of course, don’t always correlate – the VA proves the validity of that assertion.

What it has come down to in Durham for the 80 hard-core homeless vets is this: We must fill the gap between government assistance and the private housing economy.

As Reginald Johnson, Durham’s director of community development, put it, “We have both the financial and human resources ... in Durham to house the remaining 80 chronically homeless veterans.” There you have it: The means are available to get these vets off the streets.

What we don’t have are property managers and private landlords who are willing to take in these homeless vets. If these gateway people don’t step up, Durham will lose up to $2 million a year in federal assistance.

Those who provide housing get a guaranteed monthly income, security deposits and third-party inspections to maintain dwelling quality. The risks are reduced as much as possible.

These 80 vets and their brethren voluntarily took a risk – their lives. Now we must take a risk to help them. It’s the least this humane city can do.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.