Privileged Americans sit inside their warm, furnaced homes, enjoying the best time of the year, while homeless people struggle in what seems to be the hardest time of the year. They’re tasked with finding a way to survive the dropping temperatures of the winter season.
Approximately one in four homeless people in the U.S. are veterans, according to Veterans Inc. As countless veterans battle to endure the winter season, they watch privileged Americans finish their Christmas lists.
When I went to the St. Louis History Museum recently, I didn’t just find statistics about the struggle of homeless veterans.
Being a St. Louis pessimist, I walked into the city’s history museum with low expectations. To my surprise, my attention was captured by a distant voice and dimmed lights; there was a video playing that had pictures and clips of interviews with elderly men. The men had some common traits, like grey hair poking from their beards, beaten up clothing and no trace of joy in their eyes. Portraits of these men lined the walls of the room. My gaze was stuck on these images.
Jerry Toro created this exhibit, titled “In the face of Patriotism.” Toro photographed veterans who live on the streets of St. Louis suffering from drug abuse, alcoholism or mental illness, paired with homelessness.
Their quotes echoed around the room — “It’s not easy being homeless,” a veteran said. As I heard this line, I stood in front of the portraits looking into the eyes of a man named Chuck. Like the majority of the veterans, Chuck had a white beard and was wearing a winter cap and black and white flannel shirt.
While I looked at the image, I pictured what Chuck might have looked like in the war. I pictured him younger — with the same eyes — wearing his army suit, cap and holding his gun with an American flag in the background to represent the fight for his country. Back then, Chuck was a young adult who fought for his country and saw more than we could imagine. Now Chuck is still struggling as an elderly man. The photos told the stories of homeless veterans dealing with a constant battle.
I knew a little about veterans’ struggle with homelessness before going to the museum, so I already felt a sense of respect towards these men. But my sense of empathy had never seemed so strong. I realized that the amount of pain these men had experienced surpasses the limitations of my imagination.
Homeless individuals keep warm for the entire winter season with a few layers of clothing — while I complain about the frigid walk to my car. As homeless veterans fight for their daily meals, clothes to keep them warm and a place to sleep, they watch those for whom they fought celebrate a rich and jolly Christmas.
Forty-five percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Roughly one-third of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD. Avoiding trauma is nearly impossible as homeless veterans are forced to remain in survival mode.
There are 11 homeless shelters in the St. Louis area, for temporary housing. Although these shelters have limitations, and nowhere close to enough beds for the amount of homeless people in the area, many shelters provide donated items to homeless individuals.
Although donating items won’t solve the issues homeless American veterans face, taking small steps like contributing to the local Salvation Army is a good place to start. As the holiday season reminds privileged individuals of their fortune — receiving gifts and being around loved ones — homeless veterans are reminded of their constant struggle while they face the hardest time of year alone.