As in mentioned in my last post, I have an odd dynamic where I have two jobs: with my faculty job I’ve been making preparations to vacate my office by tomorrow; with my VA job I’m going against a deadline of next week to get in a book chapter on homeless veterans of the post-9/11 service era. The former is largely done, the latter I’ll be carrying into the holiday weekend and stressing over.

It is inevitable that the two conflate. My basic premise for the book chapter is that media and advocacy accounts of homelessness among this most recent cohort of veterans are far ahead of the research, and I take the limited research available on the topic to assess how accurate the popular portrayals are. Thus to what extent are young veterans: facing a “tsunami of homelessness” (actual expression, google it)? becoming homeless shortly after discharging from the military? struggling with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries? and the like is the guts of this chapter. If the answers to these questions interest you, you’ll have to read the chapter.

I was in the Green Line Café, my favorite writing spot, yesterday when I gazed out the window and idly wondered if my job transition would put me at higher risk for homelessness, at least hypothetically. Many people who exit institutions back into the community face difficulties readjusting to community living, and these stresses – housing, economic, familial, and psychosocial – can contribute to a higher risk for homelessness. The military is an institution, and while it is quite different that other institutions that are linked to homelessness (such as psychiatric hospitals, jails and prisons) and foster care, transitioning into the community for newly minted veterans, even at the best of times, can be a jolting experience.

It was initially tempting to see my leaving my job of fourteen years in the context of such an institutional transition. There is the element of uncertainty, having to relearn social norms around things such as looking for work and reorienting routines, identity issues, and the like. I will be okay economically (bar a catastrophe) for awhile, but I will be at higher risk for eventual economic difficulties and thus at elevated risk of homelessness, even if that increase is pretty marginal.

If this is starting to sound like I am magnifying first world problems I’m facing, that rapidly became my impression. Stepping out of a job and keeping the rest of my world more or less intact is not quite stepping out of the bubble that is often the military, where your life is segregated from much of society, is highly structured, and focused on particular jobs and tasks often to the exclusion of everyday life problems that many civilians face. Coming back into the community can be a very isolating experience, where the vet has changed and the once-familiar surroundings are unchanged but newly strange. The few veteran undergrads that I know talk of this, and they just can’t put themselves on the same plane as their 20-year old classmates. Homelessness, along with suicide and incarceration, albeit rare, can become extreme manifestations of this alienation.

The feeling of being in this yawning, liminal gap between the two worlds that institutional transition reflects has been best demonstrated to me by a pair of murals that are on either side of a parking lot next to my office building. The murals, seen here, depict an Iraqi village scene (on the west side of the lot) and a scene from nearby Clark Park (on the east side); with the parking lot becoming a no-man’s land straddling these scenes.

Whatever transition I’ll be going through, and I’m sure I’ll write about it here, its hardly comparable to the military transitions I’m looking at in conjunction with becoming homeless.

Stephen Metraux