NEW YORK – Herold Noel had nowhere to call home after returning from military service in Iraq. He slept in his Jeep, finding a parking space where he wouldn’t get a ticket.
“Then the nightmares would start,” says the 26-year-old former Army private first class. “I saw a baby decapitated when it was run over by a truck — I relived that every night.”
Across the United States on any given evening, hundreds of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless.
The reasons for their plight are many. For some, residual stress from attacks and roadside bombs haunts them; some can’t navigate government assistance programs; others can’t afford a house or apartment.
They are living on the edge in towns and cities big and small. Some of the hardest hit are in New York City, where housing costs “can be very tough,” says Peter Dougherty, head of the federal government’s Homeless Veterans Program. Studio apartments routinely exceed $1,000 a month.
As a member of the National Guard, Nadine Beckford patrolled New York train stations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, then served a treacherous year in the Gulf region.
But when she returned home from Iraq, she found her storage locker had been emptied of all of her belongings and her bank account had been depleted. She thinks her boyfriend took everything and “just vanished.”
She lives in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, sharing a room with eight women. She attends a job training program.
Beckford, 30, was a military-supply specialist at a U.S. base in Iraq — a sitting duck for around-the-clock attacks “where hell was your home.”
It was a “hell” familiar to Noel during his eight months in Iraq. But it didn’t stop when he returned home to New York last year and couldn’t find a job to support his wife and three children. Without enough money to rent an apartment, he turned to the housing programs for vets, “but they were overbooked,” Noel says.
They ended up in a Bronx shelter “with people who were just out of prison, and with roaches,” Noel says. “I’m a young black man from the ghetto, but this was culture shock. This is not what I fought for, what I almost died for. This is not what I was supposed to come home to.”
There are about 200,000 homeless vets in the United States.
“We’ve tried to reach out sooner to new veterans who are having problems with post-traumatic stress, depression or substance abuse, after seeing combat,” says Dougherty. “These are the veterans who most often end up homeless.”
About 350 nonprofit service organizations are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans.
But the veterans still land on a hard bottom line: Almost half of America’s 2.7 million disabled veterans receive $337 or less a month in benefits. Fewer than one-tenth are rated 100 percent disabled: they get $2,393 a month, tax free.
Noel now attends a program to get work in studio sound production. He was the protagonist of the documentary film When I Came Home, which was named best New York-made documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
After news reports about his plight, he was granted 100 percent disability compensation — after being rejected.
The Army “helped make my dreams come true,” Noel says, recalling the military base life in Georgia and in Korea that his family enjoyed before Iraq.
“I had a house, a car — they gave me everything they promised me,” he says. “Now it’s up to the government and the people we’re defending to take care of their soldiers.”
On the Internet, please see: VA’s Homeless Veterans Program: www1.va.gov/homeless/