published Monday, June 16th, 2014

Who are Chattanooga’s homeless veterans?

Sylvester Caslin is a military veteran who has struggled with health issues and homelessness since returning to Chattanooga.
Sylvester Caslin is a military veteran who has struggled with health issues and homelessness since returning to Chattanooga.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Within about a year of leaving the Tennessee Army National Guard in 1996, Sylvester Caslin was homeless.

Caslin had served nearly 14 years in the Guard, deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

While in the war zone he got shot at, suffered a head injury and inhaled burning chemicals as he drove through the desert.

He saw things that changed how he saw the world.

"Just seen a lot of things you don't see in America," he said. "It had an effect on me when I got back."

That's the way it is for many veterans who wind up homeless. There are thousands of them nationwide, a fraction of that here, a problem that now has gained the attention of President Barack Obama and our City Hall. A new challenge aims to end chronic veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Obama has challenged mayors across the United States to solve what some have called a national disgrace.

But who are our homeless veterans? How did they end up that way?

Caslin offers some clues.

He couldn't hold a job; his anger got the best of him. He once was an outgoing young man, but now he hates crowds, stays away from people. He started sleeping in vacant houses and doing things he wasn't proud of to get by.

For nearly six years he was homeless. He had family but didn't want his bad choices -- assault, burglary and drug convictions -- to plague them. But those choices haunted him, and he ended up in prison for nearly a decade. Caslin was released a year ago.

He's staying with a kind-hearted friend for now, after leaving two halfway houses in the past year.

Caslin, 52, could be one of an estimated 150 homeless veterans in the Scenic City that Mayor Andy Berke's new task force might help.

•••

Nationwide numbers show that one-third of all homeless veterans served in war zones.

Nearly half of all homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era.

The number of Iraq and Afghanistan homeless veterans has risen in recent years, but those typically younger veterans still make up less than 9 percent of the homeless veteran population nationwide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As of 2010, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development count estimated 12,700 Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans as homeless.

In Chattanooga, homeless veterans make up between 10 and 23 percent of the homeless population.

A 24-hour point-in-time count done in January by the Chattanooga Area Homeless Coalition showed 627 homeless people in Chattanooga, 68 of whom identified as veterans. The count is the best available but doesn't capture the entire population, said Coalition Executive Director Steve Wright.

National data shows that the number of homeless veterans here could be as high as 150, according to the VA.

The local survey offered this snapshot of Chattanooga's homeless veterans:

• Their average age is 47, the same recorded for the overall homeless population.

• They are overwhelmingly male, 85 percent compared to 58 percent of the total homeless population.

• More than 40 percent of those surveyed were permanently disabled, compared to 33 percent of the non-veteran homeless.

• Homeless veterans had less mental illness, 26 percent compared to 33 percent among non-veterans.

At least one national advocate said that if the local estimates of homeless veterans are accurate there's "no reason" Chattanooga can't end chronic veteran homelessness in two years.

•••

Resources are available for homeless veterans. But the difficulty lies in identifying them and connecting them to the appropriate services.

National numbers show that many homeless veterans have been placed in housing, with more planned for placement this year and next. Though the VA has noted a rise in younger veteran homelessness, proactive measures such as outreach and assistance for veterans about to become homeless are having success in reducing the problem.

Berke's Veterans Task Force, announced in late April, first met June 6. The group includes 25 members from 21 organizations. The members range from a City Council member to representatives from the VA and the UTC Student Veterans Organization, the Community Kitchen and Chattanooga Police Department.

Berke's initiative is part of Obama's "Mayors Challenge" for cities across the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

Chattanooga police Sgt. Danny Jones is a 14-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran with three overseas deployments. He'll be the department's liaison to the task force.

Jones said the initial meeting was mostly an introduction, but he envisions a lot of what police can do is make contact with homeless people, see if they are veterans and put them in contact with community resources.

Wright said additional resources are available to veterans that may not be for the non-veteran homeless.

The federal Veterans Assistance Supportive Housing voucher program pays for housing through HUD, similar to public housing vouchers.

That program alone has reduced veteran homelessness by nearly 70 percent since 2008, according to department figures.

Wright said connecting organizations locally to do a better job of identifying homeless veterans and get them access to programs will not only help veterans but can build something to expand upon for the rest of the homeless population.

John Driscoll heads the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and is a Vietnam War veteran.

Driscoll said major strides have been made since 2008. That year there were 1,700 HUD vouchers for veterans. More than 58,000 are now in use, and the goal is to be up to 80,000 by next year.

The local task force's goal should be to pool their resources and seek to keep accurate counts of veterans to increase the resources available, Driscoll said.

"Make sure those community assets are working together," Driscoll said.

Affordable housing, jobs at a livable wage and health care are the three main prongs of what the private and public sectors of a community can provide, Driscoll said. But another hurdle remains.

One of the hardest things for veterans to do is admit they need help, he said.

•••

Old Army buddies that Caslin had stayed in touch with told him his troubles sounded like they could be connected to his time at war. Eventually he went back to the VA and started seeing one of the Chattanooga Vet Center counselors.

It's helped some. He's been to the Murfreesboro and Nashville VA clinics, and they've checked his head, hearing, back, knees, elbows and heart.

"Man, everything's bad," Caslin said.

That was his situation until he was walking around the Eastdale area in March looking for odd jobs.

He saw Tracy Barrett, asked her if she had any yard work that needed tending. She asked him his story and then offered a place to stay. Barrett had once been homeless, too.

Meanwhile, Caslin waits. He has not gotten any disability rating or a validated service connection to his health problems, which means he's not yet eligible for many VA programs.

Officials are talking about help, but, "talking about it and doing it are two different things," Caslin said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.

Follow him on Twitter@tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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