Breaking the Cycle for Disabled Homeless Veteran

In 1975, six years after returning from the Vietnam War, veteran Stephen Eisenreich still didn’t know how he could fit in. “For a time,” said Eisenreich, “I didn’t blend back into society. I found a place off to the side where I could exist and where people left me alone.” Eisenreich stated that “forty-eight percent of the homeless disabled veteran population is made up of Vietnam War veterans. The stories we hear, from the Vietnam War to the present war veterans, are eerily similar. The soldiers came home, and they couldn’t find a way to fit back into society. So they got married, got divorced, got married, and got divorced. Eventually, they found a place to hole up and drink or use drugs.” No veteran should go through this; the cycle needs to be broken.

It takes some disabled veterans many years to figure out what kind of niche they can carve out for themselves. Eisenreich is now a social worker with the St. Cloud Veterans Administration Medical Center. His job—and his vision—is to help fellow veterans find permanent jobs, housing and support. “My dream was to be able to create more transitional housing in St. Cloud so that people coming out of programs like ours could transition into housing and have up to two years to get their lives back together.” This two-year period of transitional housing includes intensive supportive services to help veterans find and keep employment, retrain in life skills, develop or regain budgeting skills and learn good self healthcare practices.

According to Eisenreich, the time usually provided for a supportive transition to go back to work or to find a permanent living arrangement is not enough for disabled veterans to return to a normal life for themselves. And this is especially true for somebody with mental illness and/or a physical disability. It will take significantly more support for them to be rehabilitated and/or recover from a mental and/or physical disability, find and keep a job as well as to find affordable housing. Unfortunately, in many situations, regardless of whether the veterans are ready or not, they will still be discharged. That’s one of the reasons why Eisenreich feels it is necessary for him to visit homeless veterans under bridges or whatever unsafe place that they may be living. These veterans are extremely vulnerable. They are easily drawn back to their dysfunctional friends and to the streets. If they haven’t managed to get permanent housing, or a good six to eighteen months of transitional housing lined up, their homelessness too easily becomes a cycle. The struggle is to break out of this cycle.

How can this “cycle” of vulnerability, homelessness, chemical dependency, depression, danger and isolation be broken? Eisenreich pointed out that this cycle wasn’t something that appeared in veterans overnight. Eisenreich says, “It may take [veterans] years to find their way to us; to get the help they need.” Chemical dependency and mental health issues develop over a long period of time; it will likewise take a long time to treat them. With long-term support, veterans will be better able to build a solid foundation of employment, health care and housing. Recovery for a disabled veteran would certainly include access to therapy, which allows veterans to openly and without restriction discuss what may have caused their battlefield injury or disability.

Eisenreich also expressed concern for the safe travel of homeless disabled people as they move between where they live (shelters, transitional housing, cardboard boxes or under bridges) and where they receive support services (work sites and county social and welfare programs). Eisen-reich’s determination is to get disabled homeless veterans off the streets and out of dangerous places once and for all. “There are predators out there that [target] homeless people.”

It takes a community of vigilant people to stop the unlawful attacks on homeless veterans, most of whom are vulnerable because of disability. Helping them get involved with a process that supports a dignified life, like the two-year transitional program Eisenreich described above, is the decent thing to do. After all, these same veterans helped to make it possible for us to continue to enjoy life in a nice house, good food, health care and regular employment.

Here’s How You Can Help

• Contact Stephen Eisenreich, Social Worker and Homeless, Veterans Program Coordinator for the St. Cloud area. 320-267-0376, or 320-255-6480, X6158; or e-mail: stephen.eisenreich@med.va.gov

• Contact Steve Moynihan, Chief of Volunteer Services at the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital. 612-467-2050, e-mail: steve.moynihan@va.gov

• Contact Dr. Greg Owen of Wilder Research, a part of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. In October, 2006, Wilder Research will carry out another survey to determine the number of homeless disabled veterans throughout Minnesota. 651-647-4600; greg@wilder.org