By Starlett Quarles
One of the most vulnerable populations being impacted by COVID-19 are our U.S. veterans.
According to the most recent census data, there are currently 18.2 million veterans, with 9 million of them being serviced annually by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But what about our homeless vets who often suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders?
Who’s caring for them during this life-altering pandemic?
On any given night, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 40,000 veterans are homeless. And unfortunately, California is leading the way with the highest numbers of homeless vets. Stastica.com reports that in 2019, there were an estimated 10,980 homeless veterans living on the streets of California; while the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports that there were 3,874 homeless veterans in 2019.
With such drastic numbers, I recently sat with Dr. Ronald Beavers, CEO of the Veteran Service Outreach Program of the Positive Imagery Foundation. As an organization that is dedicated to servicing the psychosocial needs of our vets and their families, I wanted to discuss with him how Covid-19 has been impacting our community of “unsung heroes.”
SQ: How has COVID-19 impacted the U.S. veteran population?
RB: Due to their existing health issues, veterans are more vulnerable than most, especially the Vietnam and Persian Gulf veterans who have current respiratory issues resulting from [such things as] Agent Orange, and the “Gulf War Syndrome,” from Sadaam Hussein purposely setting the oil fields on fire with scud missiles.
SQ: What about the older vets, especially those who may be homeless?
RB: These veterans are particularly vulnerable … because in addition to being homeless, they [also] have specific mental and health care issues from their years of active duty.
SQ: Closer to home, how has the virus affected our vets in South L.A.?
RB: Lack of appropriate resources have always been one of the major concerns [for] veterans because of the distance one has to travel in order to receive services. Most veterans are reluctant to access the system; especially veterans of color [due to] the way they were treated while in the military. One could say [that] they have a healthy paranoia of the bureaucracy [and] feelings of betrayal.
SQ: You mentioned higher mortality rates among vets in our Black and brown communities. Please elaborate.
RB: We have underlying health conditions. [And it’s] no secret that for years the CDC and other health care institutions have identified that South L.A. has the greatest mortality and morbidity rate than any other [Black and brown community] in the country.
[We suffer] from such things as cancer, diabetes, obesity, mental health issues, abnormal amounts of stress, alcohol and drug addiction, crime and the [reality] that most [South L.A.] residents live below the poverty level.
SQ: With homelessness and unemployment quickly on the rise, discuss the mental effects the disease may be having on our vets.
RB: [Many] veterans already suffer from a combination of PTSD and alcohol use problems; which often leads to additional mental or physical health problems. Therefore, the recent pandemic is only exacerbating these issues.
As many as 10-50% of vets with alcohol use disorders and PTSD also [suffer from] such things as … anxiety disorders, like panic attacks, phobias; … mood disorders, such as major depression; disruptive behavior disorders, like attention deficit or antisocial personality disorder; and addictive disorders, such as abuse of street or prescription drugs.
SQ: What needs to be done to support the housing, unemployment and mental health needs of our vets during this pandemic?
RB: There should be a more balanced approach when funds are being allocated for social service programs for our veterans, especially within South L.A.’s Service Provider Area 6, or SPA-6. We need a concerted effort to increase the capacity of those community-based organizations (CBOs) that provide direct services to our South L.A. vets.
This would, in turn, increase opportunities for housing, employment and the many specialized services our veterans need. When it comes to affordable housing, they should also seek to provide housing opportunities that are specifically designated for veterans, and [incorporates spaces] to address their psychosocial services and case management needs.
SQ: In your opinion, what needs to be done to better help our South L.A. vets moving forward?
RB: Directly working with the VA to help establish working relationships with CBOs and institutions of higher learning; by offering tuition waivers for students who commit to work in these CBOs and with our veterans. This will provide a greater opportunity for our local community talent to invest back into South Los Angeles.
In addition, many of the reported statistics on homeless veterans in SPA-6 are very conservative, and do not reflect actual numbers. One must remember that many veterans are not even being reported because of their reluctance to deal with the system. Our homeless veterans truly need our help because they do know how to survive.
Starlett Quarles is a Gen X Advocate, public speaker and host of the internet TV Talk Show, “The Dialogue with Starlett Quarles.” For more, please visit www.TheDialogueLA.com. This column originally ran April 30, 2020.
Helping South L.A. veterans cope with the coronavirus