Study: Lack of financial literacy may trigger vets’ homelessness

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 22, 2013

WASHINGTON — Veterans are more likely to end up homeless not just because of military stressors but also because of poor financial skills, according to new research.

A new report in the American Journal of Public Health found that military members in general are less familiar with household budgets, more likely to be targets for predatory lenders and “may not have the opportunity to learn the skills necessary for being financially independent and managing money.”

The study — part of a host of new research released by the journal Tuesday on veterans housing and health issues — might help explain why veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population.

Past studies have found that veterans make up about 20 percent of Americans without stable housing, even though veterans are less than 8 percent of the population.

A Department of Veterans Affairs study published in the journal found that about 2 percent of all veterans who sought health care last year were at risk of losing their home or had spent time on the streets.

While post-traumatic stress, brain injuries and drug abuse have been established as contributing factors to the homelessness problem, the financial literacy study lists money mismanagement as another dangerous pitfall, and one that’s potentially easier to address.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Duke University said the study of 1,000-plus veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan era found nearly one-third had gone over their credit limit, written a bad check or been contacted by a collection agency. About 5 percent of those surveyed spent some time homeless.

The median income for the group was $50,000, and researchers said the financial problems weren’t confined to low-income veterans.

“Money mismanagement was reported by a substantial number of veterans and urgently needs to be addressed,” the report said. “Financial education even on simple issues, such as how to create a budget, avoid financial scams, balance a checkbook … could readily and inexpensively be added into pre- and post-separation work with veterans.”

VA leaders have set a goal of ending veterans homelessness over the next two years and have expanded housing assistance and job training programs. Researchers said the department and military do offer some financial literacy programs, but their effectiveness needs to be re-examined.

A VA study out of New York, also published Tuesday in the journal, found that homeless veterans are six times more likely to consider suicide than those with stable finances. A VA study by Colorado researchers noted that half of all homeless veterans could be suffering from traumatic brain injury.

The special issue of the journal was developed with help from VA and its National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.

In an editorial published with the research findings, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said their hope is that the work will increase public focus on the problem.

“Homeless veterans — all homeless Americans — must not remain our invisible citizens,” they wrote. “What they need are permanent places to live, jobs, education and quality healthcare.”

Twitter: @LeoShane