SALT LAKE CITY — Veterans who depart the military on misconduct charges are seven times more likely to end up homeless than those who leave for other reasons.
That was the key finding in a new study from Utah researchers analyzing 448,290 active-duty service members who left the military between October 2001 and December 2011.
Researchers used data from the Veterans Health Administration to study veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq during that period. The veterans also had to be eligible for VHA services, which means the study did not include veterans who were dishonorably discharged because that includes the loss of all VA benefits.
The study found that while 6 percent of the veterans left the military because of misconduct charges, that group made up 26 percent of total homeless veterans at their first VHA encounters. The number increased to 28 percent within a year, falling to 21 percent after five years.
Lead author and Utah State University researcher Jamison Fargo called the results a breakthrough.
“The key finding was that the risk for homelessness was seven times greater for those with misconduct-related separations,” he said. “This is the strongest predictor of veteran homelessness that we’ve found to date. It’s pretty groundbreaking.”
In the study, veterans were designated as homeless if they received a “lack of housing” code assignment during their VHA visits or if they were participating in a VHA homelessness program.
The DoD uses six separation categories when a military member leaves the service. Those categories include misconduct, disability, early release, disqualified, normal, and other or unknown.
Misconduct, as defined by the DoD, can include drug use, alcoholism and other code-of-conduct offenses and infractions. Substance abuse, Fargo said, was the No. 1 reason for a misconduct-related separation from the military.
Fargo said he and the study’s co-authors, who included University of Utah researcher Adi Gundlapalli and researchers from the Utah VA Health Care system, assumed homelessness would be higher among veterans with misconduct records.
“But we were surprised at the magnitude of the rates,” Fargo said. Seven percent, he observed, “is pretty significant.”
Fargo said the study’s identification of a dominant risk factor for homelessness should push VA officials to focus resources on veterans who leave the military on misconduct charges. Those individuals should be provided with more intensive case management, education and tracking, he said.
“We don’t even need to create anything new,“ Fargo said. ”We can use already existing VA resources. The tools are already there.“
The USU researcher said it’s important that military members who have made mistakes during their careers are not cast into the shadows and forgotten.
“These are still individuals who served their country to one degree or another,” he said. “You can’t just write people off.”