This is an excerpt from the National League of Cities’ (NLC) new report, Veterans First: An Approach to Meeting the Housing Needs of Seniors.
In 1965, Arthur Keller followed the example of his father and enlisted in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. After serving as part of the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, he was honorably discharged in 1968.
While transitioning back into civilian life, Mr. Keller missed the structure the military provided. He later found his passion in the construction industry and still considers wood working a hobby. For more than 40 years, he has called Pensacola, Florida, home, sharing his house with a friend he jokingly calls his “adopted mother.” Despite support from his two daughters, Mr. Keller’s house needs plumbing and roof repairs to allow him to safely remain in his home. Mr. Keller’s inability to access or afford necessary home repairs after serving in the military is not unusual.
In 1968, instead of being drafted for the Vietnam War, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, resident Jerry Holliman followed in the footsteps of the rest of the men in his family and voluntarily enlisted. Despite other family members being in the Navy and Air Force, Mr. Holliman opted for the Army and was a squad leader in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
“I served for the flag,” said Mr. Holliman. “The flag is the only thing that unites us.”
Mr. Holliman’s time in the Army extended well beyond Vietnam. He continued to serve until 2010, including 37 convoy missions in Iraq. His service resulted in an array of service-connected disabilities. Exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam led to three types of cancer, gout and diabetes. A mortar explosion in Iraq left him with other injuries. As his age progressed, inflammation in his hands left him unable to administer the insulin necessary to treat his diabetes.
After being honorably discharged as a master sergeant, Mr. Holliman returned to Hattiesburg to live in a family home that was left to him. In early 2017, a tornado destroyed the HVAC system, leaving him without central air in the middle of a Mississippi summer.
The stories of Mr. Keller and Mr. Holliman illustrate what the American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Microdata Sample national data shows to be true. Veterans are more likely to own their own homes, but they tend to be older and more likely to have some form of a disability than non-veterans. Increasingly, local leaders are confronted with the costs associated with more residents — both veterans and non- veterans — aging in their communities. Calls to first responders regarding preventable slips, falls and other injuries related to mobility consume limited time and resources.
Our research indicates that local governments and agencies can make progress on housing issues for their communities at-large by focusing on veterans first and extending that progress to other subpopulations. Low-cost home modifications such as installing grab bars, wheel chair ramps, non-slip flooring, and lower countertops and cabinets, as well as widening doorways and putting in no-step showers, can enable homeowners to remain safely in their own homes. These repairs can also reduce the need for interventions by first responders and prolonged stays in expensive emergency rooms and recovery facilities. Importantly, making these adjustments for senior veterans allows them the dignity and comfort of remaining in their communities and homes as they continue to age.
With an estimated 46.2 million people aged 65 and older, addressing the issue of home repairs and modifications for everyone can seem daunting. As the end of 2018 nears, our nation is more than one third of the way through this historic demographic change. Increasingly local leaders are confronted with the costs associated with more residents aging in there communities. To help local leaders make the right decisions to support their aging residents, the National League of Cities (NLC) has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation to analyze American Communities Survey data and inform community conversations and actions.
About the Authors: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Program Manager for Housing at the National League of Cities (NLC), connecting local leaders to best practices and efforts working to ensure all veterans have a safe place to call home. He has worked at the local, state, and federal levels on homelessness and housing for more than 15 years.
Domenick Lasorsa is the associate for Veterans and Special Needs at the National League of Cities. He is finishing his master’s degree in public service at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Follow him on twitter @DomLasorsa.