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Homeless Black Veterans



One third of all homeless veterans in America are Black

Racial disparities can be found everywhere in the United States, and homelessness is no different. Although African Americans are about 14% of the population, a third of all homeless veterans are Black. And while progress in ending veteran homelessness has been made, these disparities persist.

Gary Smith, a 60-year-old disabled veteran from Lauderhill, FL, was homeless for 10 years.  He joined the United States Army in 1980 at the age of 18, following in the footsteps of a large family of 14 that was steeped in military tradition and service—his father, brother, sisters, uncle, and nephew.

He never saw combat and says he was honorably discharged 12 years later but struggled with life outside of the military.

“When I got out, the government, they don’t give you a briefing, they just throw you out there, so you have to figure out everything on your own, so I didn’t know I had a mental issue,” he recalled. “I went home to my family, working man and everything, but I found myself getting caught up into the drugs that I was using when I was on active duty, smoking weed, snorting cocaine, drinking alcohol.  I was an alcoholic before I got out of the military, you know, and I graduated from snorting cocaine to smoking crack.”

Smith says in the beginning he was a functional drug addict and was able to keep a job. But he soon became a slave to the drugs. He lost his job and did day work to support his addiction.  He lived in crack houses and abandon houses.  He lived with his mother for a while, and with his sister for a time but says he was still in the streets and the military taught him how to adapt and survive.

“I stayed out all those years until I said you know what, I have gotten tired of this lifestyle, and I started going to the VA, asking questions and I started going to these treatment programs.”

Like many homeless veterans, Smith suffers from several mental health conditions including PTSD, mood swing disorder, major depression, and anxiety.

He says his mental health issues left him totally and permanently disabled.

Smith has been sober for 13 years and with the help of his military benefits, bought his own home 2 years ago.

“I lived in an apartment for 17 years before I moved into this house.  I started getting my life back together back in 2008, where I stopped using drugs, I stopped doing this and said I’m changing my life over spiritually, and just give my life to the Lord you know, and that was the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Monica Diaz Executive Director of VA Homeless Program Office

Monica Diaz is the Executive Director of the VA Homeless Program Office at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“In fiscal year 2021 we served around 200,000 veterans and approximately 39% of those were African Americans.  Three percent were black women.”

Diaz says African Americans were “considerably overrepresented” in the homeless veteran population.  She says her program has about 8 different initiatives that address different needs including transitional housing.

“We have over 12,000 beds right now, we provide as SSVF services–supportive services for veteran families and interestingly enough, that was one of the programs that a lot of the African American community utilizes the most, you know, a lot of the homeless veterans that are African American actually tap into that program a lot.  I would say approximately 40%.”

SSVF provides services for very low-income veteran families needing, leaving, or transitioning into permanent housing.

Two months ago, her office launched two new racial equity initiatives she believes will help address disparity issues not just for Black veterans but all racial and ethnic groups.

“I think our focus toward that mission is not only about ending homelessness but do it in an equitable way in addressing the racial disparities.”

According to Diaz, upon discharge veterans get what she calls “a warm handoff.”

“They get the orientation in terms of what are the next steps in an effort to try to prevent, you know, homelessness and not only that, many other aspects that includes their psycho-social well-being and mental health.  But I certainly don’t want to neglect someone’s experience, what I will say is that there’s processes in place for that and if there’s any area, there are any particular experiences that shows us something is not working, the VA is always looking forward, to look into those particular situations and address that.”

Randolph Turner served 21 years in the U.S. Army before retiring at the rank of Sergeant First Class.  His military pedigree runs deep.  Of the 10 children in his family, 8 have served their country in uniform, in the Marines, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Army.

The 61-year-old Woodbridge, VA resident who served in the Persian Gulf war has made it his personal mission to advocate for homeless veterans.

“A lot of times they’re misunderstood. Appearance seems to play a part sometimes when you see people. You see people who are not well groomed, not well dressed and you make the assumption that hey, they got other issues. You have a lot of professional veterans out there, they actually have jobs, but they don’t have a place to stay,” he says. “People don’t look at that, they just make the assumption that you’re homeless on your own accord. Bad things happen to good people.”

Since 2012, Turner, a father of 4, has been reaching out to homeless veterans, meeting them where they are—encampments and trailer parks in the area, taking the temperature of what’s happening on the streets. Twice a month he rents out a conference room and talks to them about how to file claims, understand paperwork and where to go for help. It’s word of mouth and veterans come from all over the area. He pays for it out of his own pocket.

“Everything I’m doing is from my heart.  They’re individuals and they deserve the help that they can get…we’ve got to help them as much as we possibly can.”

Turner believes sometimes Vets get discouraged, filing claims that keep getting denied.  And that African American Vets don’t get disability benefits when other races do.

Stigma, he believes, plays a huge role for Black veterans.

“A lot of times they won’t admit they have these problems because the stigmatism in the black community is that if you have a mental condition, there’s no help for you and that comes from the pulpit to people who you know. So, a lot of times that’s the silent thing that’s going on with African American homeless veterans.  They can’t tell no one so they have to go and do what they have to do.”

That includes family.

“If you’re not telling anybody what’s going on how are family members gonna know? A lot of times they only want to get involved so much. The stigma is that ‘they crazy, the military made them crazy’ but as far as doing support, they’re going to be very limited in what they’re going to do.”

“A lot of times,” he continued, “These guys they don’t want to talk about how scared they are being homeless they just go with it and sometimes when you take a drink you forget about your fears.”

His advice to Black vets? Seek help.

“It may be difficult for you to talk sometime but if you can’t talk to a family member, talk to someone that we can get you the help you need. There’s a lot of agencies out there that’s willing, they’re able and they’re ready to help you right now so please come out of the dark and welcome to the light.”

Katherine Washington-Williams, PhD Region VIII Commander of NABVETS

Katherine Washington-Williams, PhD, is the Region VIII Commander for the National Association for Black Veterans, Inc. (NABVETS) in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  She knows first-hand what it’s like to lose everything.

“Homelessness in Black veterans is terrible.  If you look all around the globe and the United States, each city, each state, each town you’ll find homeless veterans begging for help.  And the reason why I can speak so profound on that is because I found myself at one time being a homeless veteran with two sons sleeping in my car.”

Washington-Williams joined the Army in 1980 when she was just 17 years-old, so young her parents had to sign the paperwork for her. When her father passed away in 2000, she retired with 20 years of service under her belt. Sergeant First Class.

She had a good job, she says, and was working in a doctor’s office three years later when she had a stroke.  As a result, she lost her job and her home.  She says everything happened so fast, but she found herself homeless with her two sons, at the time 10 and 5 years old.

Her luck changed in 2005 when she met a pastor from NABVETS. Now she’s devoting her life to helping get Black veterans off the street and into housing.

“Most of the veterans in NABVETS have been in the shoes of those veterans out there, we just picked ourselves up got the help we needed from NABVETS, or other veterans’ organizations and we want to help other people.”

NABVETS has chapters all over the country.  They have eating programs, clothing drives, help veterans file claims. They work with schools to support children in need.   They don’t get funding from the city or federal government, and while other veterans donate to NAVETS, many of their programs are paid for out of their own pockets.

She travels to cities across the country and says there are large numbers of Black women veterans on the streets, some with children. She’s very protective of them.

“The Black veteran still does not get treated right,” she said.  “The veterans we see, most of them tell us they’ve never heard of those programs getting out, how to process the right way or what programs are available to them.”

“I just have to lay it out there and be honest,” she continued. “Every veteran is not treated the same even though the military and other people in the world want us to think that we’re treated the same…we’re treated different.  We’re treated like sometimes we’re nobody.  For a Black veteran who is homeless, they’re really looked down on, from the dirty shoes to the probably nappy hair to the fingernails uncleaned or unkept, to the garment that they wear, people look at them and they really are afraid.”

She believes for many veterans homelessness is a choice and that stigma and pride keep them from seeking help.

“Stigma is a big thing because All of us have pride and none of us want to be labeled,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to know that we’re homeless, we don’t want anybody to know we have issues, we just want to be normal out here.”

“I was homeless for a year and a half, and nobody knew it,” she recalled. “Not even my family…I never told nobody.”

Two years ago her son told her mother.

“She said Katherine, why didn’t you come home?”

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), one of the nation’s top authorities on homeless veteran issues, the factors that influence veteran homelessness are complex.  From living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to substance abuse and lack of family and social support networks.

Kathryn Monet, NCHV CEO

Kathryn Monet, NCHV’s CEO, says although the VA has recently taken a look at equity within homeless programs, homelessness is an “intersectional challenge.”

“Black veterans are subject to many of the same challenges Black civilians are in housing and labor markets.  They experience worse outcomes from systems that feed into homelessness.”

She gives the following examples:

“More can be done to tailor programs and services to areas where significant populations of underserved Black veterans exist,” Monet believes. “However; homeless programs are not the only VA or federal programs that offer benefits and services, so other parts of VA and the Federal Government must also take a look at how they can support Black veterans as well.”

Gary Smith says Black veterans must take the first step.

“Brothers, look here man, there’s help for you. Take advantage of the help that’s there for you.  You have to apply yourself.  They’re not going to come out in the streets looking for you, you’ve got to go to them.”

Washington-Williams agrees.

“My saying in life to any veteran is ‘you served; you deserve.’ Whether you have a dishonorable discharge or not, you are welcome to reach out to the National Association of Black Veterans, not only us but any veteran service organization.  We’re willing to help you, you have to make that first step and let us know that I’m hungry, I’m homeless and I need help.”

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