Doran Hocker came home from the Vietnam War and spent the next three decades floating from couch to couch, coping with the memories of war at the same time he surrounded himself with drug dealers, pimps and murderers.
“I tried to kill myself for 30 years,” he says as he recounts the experience now. “There were a lot of things that happened that I just couldn’t cope with.”
Hocker’s lifestyle changed dramatically in 2003 when, tired of the lifestyle he was leading, he moved from Detroit to St. Paul to live with his brother. One day shortly after the move, he said, he woke up and simply decided to go for a walk.
He ended up at the Dorothy Day Center, the St. Paul homeless shelter run by Catholic Charities. There, he was told that if he could remain sober he could get a job.
Veterans looking for housing assistance may visit the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans online at: www.mac-v.org
Five years later, Hocker is a case manager with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, where he is charged with helping other returning soldiers avoid the kind of strife he endured in his post-combat years.
“When these guys come back, they’re never going to be the same,” the 59-year-old said at a recent event at Fort Snelling orchestrated to bring veterans’ service providers together under a single roof.
“They saw and did things that may not impact them right now but, five years from now, they’re going to wake up in a cold sweat,” he said. “From what I’ve been through, I understand that.”
Such assistance is likely to be in increasing demand over the next several years as soldiers return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and begin trying to reintegrate into civilian life amid a period of economic turmoil.
While many are coming home to support networks of friends and family, veterans’ service providers say the painful effects of war for many will emerge only after time, slowly eroding those connections and leaving many alone and in peril.
Difficulties finding work, lingering psychological issues and tangles with the legal system also pose risks for the new crop of veterans, they say.
“A few DUIs and all of a sudden your family’s not so happy to see you come home for the holidays anymore,” said Nathaniel Saltz, a regional manager with MACV. “It can spiral out of control pretty quickly.”
For some who have difficulty transitioning, the ultimate consequence is homelessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 10,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are now homeless or in programs to prevent homelessness. In 2006, there were 1,297 such soldiers, according to the VA.
An estimated 4,100 veterans are believed to be without housing on any given night in Minnesota, and local providers say that, while most served prior to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are seeing more young soldiers in need.
Officials at MACV, which coordinates veteran’s service programs around the state, estimated that a quarter of the soldiers they helped last year had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“It’s (the number of soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan) gone way up,” said Saltz, who works out of the organization’s St. Paul headquarters.
The rise comes as officials at the local, state and national levels step up their attempts to eradicate homelessness, and pay special attention to the veteran population.
In Hennepin County, officials are four years into a ten-year plan that aims to eliminate homelessness in the community. The plan spells out several steps to help veterans, including better coordination with the VA.
VA officials have meanwhile set a goal of eradicating homelessness among veterans within five years – a commitment that is leading to more money for local agencies.
The city of Minneapolis, for example, is able to distribute more Section 8 vouchers to help veterans get into housing. Last month, MACV received $1 million from the VA to spend on rental assistance, case management and prevention efforts.
President Obama also announced a proposal last week that would provide tax credits of up to $4,800 for employers who offer jobless veterans work.
Cathy ten Broeke, the project coordinator for the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis, said such efforts are a “bright spot in an otherwise difficult time.”
“It’s (the federal goal) an intensive, ambitious goal, but it does mean that we’re likely to see additional resources coming into our community over the next several years,” she said.
Still, officials acknowledge more needs to be done.
MACV’s 13-bed homeless shelter is consistently full. The lack of shelters dedicated exclusively to veterans – and women in particular – is also making it harder to target resources directly, officials say.
The floundering economy is of course also playing a role.
“Veterans are having real difficulties finding work in this economy, and that has made our job a lot harder,” ten Broeke said.