More Transitions

Still feel like I’m transitioning out of my USciences job in that things don’t feel that much different. I’m still working with several PhD students on their dissertations, and have a couple of papers that I need to wrap up. Looking back on the last three weeks, I have done a fair bit on figuring out next steps, more than I feel like I have done, but feel like it’s been very ad hoc; that I have yet to do this in a coordinated manner. In that sense, I feel like I still need to “pivot” from how I was working pre-separation to how I’m working now.

In the meantime, I’m also looking at transition in a very different context in a piece that I am writing, with my friend Tyson Smith, about homelessness among recent (i.e., post-9/11 era) veterans. This piece is slated to be a chapter in a book on veteran homelessness edited by my VA colleague Jack Tsai. On one hand I’m excited to write it, as it’s a place to put together various research and thoughts that I’ve had on the topic. On the other hand, the deadline for this was July 1. Thus I feel a growing sense of urgency about this paper.

I’d like to take this time and reflect on some of what I’ve been absorbed with, related to homelessness and transitions among homeless veterans. I’ve just read through Kerry Spitzer’s dissertation on “Post-9/11 Military Veterans and American Housing and Homelessness Policy,” which she did in conjunction with a PhD in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. If you are into this topic, the diss is well worth the read and is the only other piece that I can find that focuses on the topic we are writing about in our eventual book chapter. Spitzer offers a very broad and well done review of the work done in this area, and then contributes her own research on veterans in Western Massachusetts that looks at the relationships between their military service and subsequent housing. It is wide-ranging, the way only a dissertation can be, and casts this veteran/housing intersection into a community context. Here she argues that much of the housing issues (including homelessness) are a manifestation of the isolation that veterans experience, both from civilian society and from each other. This is particularly the case among female veterans, and is as much a product of institutional and societal structures as it is about the individual circumstances that we, as researchers on homelessness, tend to focus on. Spitzer also credits Tyson’s research in mapping out this orientation to the veteran’s place in the community.

I had an ulterior motive for reading this dissertation, as it promised some focus on homelessness as a function of veterans transition to civilian life. I have just finished a section looking at this, as there is a widely held premise that much of the homelessness that occurs among recent veterans is due to difficulties veterans face pretty much right after leaving the military. Post-9/11 veterans, according to people like Amy Fairweather from Swords to Plowshares, are becoming homeless much quicker than veterans from previous eras. I’m not sure how she can say that as there is no research on time to homelessness by older veterans, and the few studies in a position to answer this question among recent veterans (I count two, including one that I lead-authored), found that median time to homelessness is 2 or 3 (depending on the study) years after separation for veterans who do become homeless. This median figure will only grow longer as veterans from this era accrue more time back in the civilian world.

To be clear, I don’t minimize homelessness among this recent veteran cohort, I just say that research suggests that most veterans who become homeless don’t do so on a clear discharge to homelessness pathway. If homelessness among veterans is related to transitioning, then it will have a delayed effect, and will likely need to have other factors in place to interact with military and transition-related factors.

In her dissertation, Spitzer wrote: “I propose that we might gain a better understanding of homelessness, if we consider homelessness as a failure to transition from the military back into the community. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand the broader role of housing during the re-entry experiences of veterans” (p. 15). Unfortunately, however, Spitzer never really takes this up again. She refocuses the statement to the converse (page 22), when she concludes that “Stable housing during the first year after separation from the military is associated with fewer difficulties readjusting to civilian life.” Then the closest she again comes to revisiting this in the conclusion (page 203) when she writes “The absence of family support or conflict among families was often linked to spells of homelessness.”

I take this lack of any evidence to the contrary as support for my assertion that for most veterans the path to homelessness outlasts the transition to civilian life. Certainly the seeds for homelessness may get planted in the transition with issues such as isolation, lack of family support, and employment difficulties, but if homelessness does occur it does so in a much more gradual, insidious process. This is a good reason for why veteran homelessness, while it is often lamented and dissected, is still so poorly understood.

Stephen Metraux