A Black Veteran's Tragedy

I was honorably discharged from the United Air Force in the summer of 2005 and suddenly found myself unemployed. A few weeks later, I was homeless.

Dominant economic theory suggests that the economy becomes unstable as the unemployment rate declines. The unemployment rate cannot reach 0 percent because it would inhibit technological advancement and dissuade people from pursuing the American Dream. Following this logic, America’s political-capitalist system needed me to be unemployed for economic sustainability.

My homelessness was another service to this country. Once veterans no longer wear a uniform, they become faceless and forgotten by society. People fail to realize that the economy continues to thrive off unemployed, homeless, and even incarcerated veterans.

Here are some alarming statistics:

  • Veterans represent 23 percent of the homeless population but only 10 percent of the general population. 
  • Black men represent 50 percent of homeless veterans. Black women represent 30 percent. 
  • Black men and women represent only about 13 percent of the general population.
  • Veterans experiencing homelessness are five times more likely than the general population to go to prison. 

Upon my departure, the Air Force gave me meager resources for housing, health care and employment. This was supposed to help ease the transition from military to civilian life. Honorably discharged as a JAG Paralegal I, I found myself unemployed. My veteran status, military background and paralegal experience meant little to law firms. Each job interview was met with rejection, and I became increasingly discouraged and depressed. I slid deeper into drunkenness and closer to the street. 

People who are unemployed but not actively seeking work are not classified as “unemployed.”

There was no category for a veteran like me—frustrated, desperate and finding solace in a bottle. 

However, in May 2009, Congress passed the Hearth Act and also amended the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This resulted in a revision of the definition of “homelessness” and expanded the Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Assistance Programs so that I qualified for assistance. 

Frequently, I hear people say things like “Homeless veterans are crazy!” “They need help!”  “They’re alcoholics and junkies.” I’m always dumbfound by people’s opinions. I lived with an undiagnosed service-related mental illness for years. I self-medicated with alcohol, which led to legal problems. If people think veterans are menaces to society, then why do they never stop to ask why?

Just last week, I noticed a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks and soiled clothes walking down the street, and I saw myself. Who I used to be. He was aimlessly pushing a grocery cart filled with his life’s possessions stacked above his head. I remember the stress that came with not knowing what I would eat or where I would sleep. When I got money from family or friends, I bought gas and two bottles of malt liquor. Drinking was more important to me than food because each bottle helped me forget I was homeless. I thought about sleeping in shelters, but I’d read that someone had been fatally stabbed at a local shelter, so I chose to sleep in my car in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Sometimes I bounced from couch to couch—staying on some longer than others.  

One day, I decided I was tired of not having a home. I went to the library daily and applied for jobs. I filled out applications, but without a home address, I was ineligible. Veterans face many variables non-veterans don’t when looking for work. They can be faced with roadblocks ranging from living situation to education level, from race to gender, sexuality to health status. All of these factors can significantly affect access to employment, fair housing, healthcare, and education.

Finally, I got an e-mail from an employer. We scheduled an interview and I was hired. My interviewer, aware of my living situation and criminal background, said, “We have to start giving our veterans a second-chance. We will never know what you all have experienced.”

In time, I got information about the GI Bill that covered college tuition and offered a living allowance. I was able to find an affordable apartment and buy groceries. I graduated from a community college with two associate degrees and a yoga-teacher training certificate. I’ve gone from a faceless veteran to a husband, father of two daughters, and homeowner. 

I am 8 years sober and a published poet and essayist. I am one face out of many veterans. I blamed myself for failing the system, but I now know that the system needed me unemployed and homeless. The system failed me, and it continues to fail many other veterans.

Rashaad Thomas is an editor at TRR.

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Sources

Bureau of Labor (Employment, Unemployment, and Not In Labor Force Rate) https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t05.htm

Futurity  (Incarceration Information) https://www.futurity.org/military-veterans-prison-1535212/

Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices  https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/Justice_Involved_Veterans.pdf

Homeless in American:  Focus Veterans https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/Homelessness_in_America._Focus_on_V eterans.pdf

HUD Definition of Homeless Unemployed Not in Labor Force https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/PIH2013-15HOMELESSQAS.PDF

Homeless Veterans Point in Time (PIT) Count https://www.va.gov/HOMELESS/pit_count.asp