I believe it was a touching gesture by New York Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo, 25, who about two weeks ago, bought and gave a pair of $100 Skechers boots to presumed homeless US Army veteran Jeffrey Hillman, 54. But as the New York Times reported this week, a “woman said she had bought him a pair of shoes a year ago.” Hillman does not need or want shoes – for that matter, nor does he a need a home. Hillman reportedly has a home paid for by his government benefits. What Hillman may need is the kind of mental health care and counseling many US veterans today so desperately need.
After walking around barefoot for any considerable amount of time, shoes are, at best, painful. Moreover, when spotted on Broadway in New York this week, again without shoes, and asked ‘where was Officer Primo’s gift?’ he said it is best for him if “those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money,” Hillman said to the New York Times.
“I could lose my life,” he added.
In Hillman’s world, wearing shoes makes him vulnerable to trauma – either real or imagined.
Hillman has an apartment in the Bronx, officials on Tuesday told New York’s News 4 I-Team.
“He does have stable housing,” said Seth Diamond, New York City’s homeless services commissioner. “We’ve worked with Mr. Hillman for years,” he added.
Since we got sucked in on this virulent heart-strings-tugging bandwagon, so many of us “support the troops” and hate homelessness so much, let’s look at some hard facts about how our military veterans are fairing when back in the loving embrace of the US homeland.
The VA reports, as of September 2009, there were approximately 23 million veterans.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says there are between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans who are homeless at some time during the year; and on any given night, more than 300,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters.
The good news is, the number of homeless vets in the US declined by nearly 12% between January 2010 and January 2011, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
More bad news, thirty-three percent all homeless males are veterans, who are also twice as likely as other Americans to become chronically homeless. They represent only 11% of the adult civilian population, but are 26% of the homeless population, according to the Homelessness Research Institute.
The risk of women veterans becoming homeless is four times greater than for male veterans. The National Center on Family Homelessness says 7% of the nation’s homeless veteran population is comprised of women and that between 23 and 29% of female veterans seeking VA medical care reported incidents of sexual assault.
The homelessness of so many military veterans is a real and critical issue, but likely Hillman (whatever the cause) and surely many thousands of other veterans are suffering from some sort of mental illness and/or other social disabilities — and are finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to an increasingly complicated society.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness says veterans often have limited education and lack of transferable skills from military to civilian life (especially true of younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan); they suffer from Combat-related physical and mental health issues and disabilities; they have substance abuse problems that interfere with job retention; and have weak social networks due to problems adjusting to civilian life.
We recently hosted for an extended stay in our home, a veteran, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and several other clinically diagnosed issues. He asked me to document his current VA-issued prescription medications, which I thought would be a piece of cake. He could fit a whole cake in the shopping bag that he dropped on the table which held his medications.
He had several different pain prescriptions, two different mood enhancers, two different heart pills, two different sleeping pills, two different blood pressure meds, and on and on – at least 20 different prescriptions.
I am not doing a hatchet piece here on the VA, but they are apparently not equipped to deliver the kind of patient-centered outcomes that our veterans need – nor can the VA consistently offer a common thread of care through its overwhelmed and often well-meaning medical professionals.
The combination of medications ingested daily by my guest vet apparently caused negative side effects including three black outs in the last three weeks – leading to an evening in the emergency room for him, this past Sunday night.
I am pleased to say our veteran is now in a non-profit, faith-based residential and work-life development program and is doing well.
Should American vets have to depend on the services of private entities to take care of their critical post-military-service needs?
The same week that Officer Primo bought those shoes for Hillman, the Senate sent the White House a bill giving nearly 4 million veterans and survivors a 1.7 percent increase in their monthly benefit payments next year. But the VA appears to needs a lot more, including a total overhaul of its mental health patient-care model.
Veterans with mental health and substance abuse disorders are a large, growing, and expensive group to treat among veterans. In a RAND Corporation 2007 report, the per-patient cost for veterans receiving care through the VA for mental illness or substance abuse was $12,337, compared with an average cost of $4,579 for veterans without any mental health diagnoses.
Veteran patients with mental-health challenges represented 15.4% of patients in the VA system, but their care represented almost 33% of all VA healthcare costs.
Note: The US Senate Tuesday failed to ratify an international treaty intended to protect the rights of those with disabilities, with conservatives opposed the treaty believing it could weaken US law.
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) says signing onto the treaty would have been a positive outcome “for US disabled veterans.”