Jeremy Lasek PHAA and Assoc Prof Lisa Wood UWA
On 11 November, millions across the world stopped on Remembrance Day to remember those who’d made the ultimate sacrifice in war.
While we paused in schools, workplaces and homes to observe a minute’s silence, a new study, the first of its kind, has highlighted what’s been described as ‘a national shame’; the thousands of veterans who are homeless and sleeping rough in Australia.
Just published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH) the study showed our veterans were likely to have spent more years on the street – and have a higher prevalence of health and social issues – than other Australians who sleep rough.
The study, ‘Out of the trenches; prevalence of Australian veterans among the homeless population and the implications for public health’, highlights the imperative for earlier intervention and prevention of veteran homelessness itself.
It found veteran homelessness has been comparatively hidden in Australia compared to other countries, and consequently the myriad of health, psychosocial and adjustment issues faced by homeless veterans has also been concealed.
”The paucity of robust data to gauge the magnitude of veterans’ homelessness in Australia has contributed to the invisibility of the issue.,” the study said.
The study found veterans comprise 5.6% (or one in 18) of people sleeping rough in Australia, with veterans reporting having spent an average of 6.3 years on the street or in emergency accommodation. This compares to an average of five years for their non-veteran counterparts. Furthermore, veterans had a higher prevalence of self-reported physical health, mental health and social issues compared with non-veteran rough sleepers.
Support for veterans who are homeless
According to Mission Australia, veterans often end up homeless because they find it hard to ask for help. And as noted in the ANZJPH paper, veterans can also be reluctant to use mainstream homelessness services.
“At present there are only a handful of services or programs that operate specifically at the interface of homelessness and veteran sectors, and it been argued that homeless veterans have additional needs and may require specialist services, including supportive housing, specifically designed with veterans’ issues in mind.”
Services that have taken up this remit include V360 Australia, which was established in 2015 to locate, identify and assist every veteran with service in the Australian Defence Force, who’s in need of support. The V360A motto is “to help today’s veterans succeed in tomorrow’s world, and to provide solutions for veteran homelessness and suicide prevention.”
The organisation says “our vulnerable, at risk and homeless veterans are almost always affected by mental health issues, sustained both in combat and other areas of life. What makes them worthy of our undivided attention is the fact they once signed a blank cheque for their nation that could have seen them sacrifice their lives in defence of our freedoms, liberties and way of life.
“In effect, they are discharged from hospitals, work, homes and even from their own families into homelessness. Devastatingly, these people who have bravely served their country are left to tackle a range of personal concerns as well as mental and physical injuries without a safe place to call home.”
Similarly, Homeless Heroes was established by Wounded Heroes in 2017 to assist with emergency solutions to assist in solving the homeless veteran problem in Australia. As with Wounded Heroes, Homeless Heroes are ‘first-responders’ and supports not only homeless veterans but also partners of veterans, where other community services are not immediately available.
In Queensland, the Salvation Army established a Veteran’s Support Program, in collaboration with RSL Queensland, to support veterans and their families struggling with homelessness, or at risk of homelessness. The program works with participants to help overcome barriers and secure and maintain stable, safe, independent housing.
Mental health issues
The ANZJPH study said: ”related to the interest in veterans’ homelessness has been the heightened attention in recent years to the pervasiveness of mental health issues, suicide and self-harm among veterans in Australia. This has ignited closer scrutiny of the care, pathways and vulnerability of those exiting the ADF.
”Findings in a 2017 national report showed that young men who had left the ADF were 1.9 times more likely to die by suicide relative to the general population, highlighting the tension between a defence workforce trained and recruited for toughness, strength and resilience, and the challenges this presents in identifying and managing mental illness and suicide amongst current and ex-defence force members. The risk factors for suicide, self-harm and problematic transitioning back into civilian life mirror some of the well-documented risk factors for homelessness, including trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), untreated mental health conditions, and alcohol and other drug use.”
”With suicide and poor mental health more pervasive among both homeless and veteran populations in Australia, unaddressed mental health, alcohol and drug use are worrying markers of risk among homeless veterans that warrant greater attention as a public health issue,” the study concluded.
“Moreover, safe and secure housing is fundamental to health and to hope, that all citizens living in a country without war should have.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides support through its crisis accommodation program. To access this program, veterans or their families need to call Open Arms on 1800 011 046 to assess eligibility and suitability.
The ANZJPH article ‘Out of the trenches; prevalence of Australian veterans among the homeless population and the implications for public health’ was co-authored by Lisa Wood, Paul Flatau, Ami Seivwright and Nicholas Wood
Image: Homeless trolleys in Adelaide. Michael Coghlan/Flickr