Seated in the middle of a crowded room, David King, a homeless Army veteran, belted out lyrics to a gospel song.
“Oh God, you're not done with me yet,” he sang from the song “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave. “I am redeemed. You set me free.”
Between their bites of hot dogs and chocolate chip cookies, other homeless patrons at the Seven Hills (or 7hills) Homeless Center in Fayetteville shouted at him to be quiet, but King continued.
King, 54, is one of at least 195 homeless veterans in Fayetteville, where the number of homeless vets has grown 34 percent (from 146) in 2015, according to data provided by the Community and Family Institute at the University of Arkansas.
Rising veteran homelessness is just one of the major challenges facing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the state as it seeks to provide health care and related services to the estimated 214,000 Arkansas veterans.
A team of University of Arkansas journalism students and professors who examined veterans’ health care issues also found a disturbing spike in veteran suicide.
Arkansas veterans die by suicide 25 percent more often than national averages; a high number of them are young veterans, a trend blamed on the blend of the state’s rural isolation, veteran mental health challenges and gun availability.
Maureen Cover-Bryan of Rogers lost her 30-year-old son, Colin Bryan, to suicide in 2011. He was a U.S. Army paratrooper who suffered from mental illness and substance abuse, common conditions for many of the veterans who die by suicide in Arkansas.
Bryan’s age group is at highest risk: the suicide rate in Arkansas for veterans ages 18-34 is more than 60 percent higher than the national average, at 116.4 per 100,000 veterans.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, in 2014 there were 100 veteran suicides statewide, which is a rate of 48.1 suicides per 100,000 veterans in Arkansas compared to the national rate of 38.4 per 100,000 veterans. Arkansas has a higher rate than any other state in the southern region, which includes 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Cover-Bryan created Ozark Outreach because of the lack of support groups for loss survivors. She said she thinks that suicide prevention and awareness for all should start in schools, so that everyone can be informed and comfortable with the topic.
“They need to be able to talk about it,” Cover-Bryan said. “They need to be able to say the word suicide without everyone flinching.”
Dr. Mark Worley, chief of staff at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, said one way to reduce suicide is to get veterans in contact with the VA health system.
Worley says incidents of suicide correlate to three things common to rural areas: access to guns, lack of social contacts, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Nationally, firearms are used in about half of all suicides. But in Arkansas, veteran suicides by firearm are at 72 percent.
To address the mental health issues, the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks offers 19 treatment programs, with post-traumatic stress disorder being a common ailment, said Brian Moore, Fayetteville VA acting chief of mental health.
Everyone at the VA is responsible for raising mental health awareness, Moore said.
“The first thing is to listen to the veteran,” Moore said. This means staying on the phone with the veteran or physically staying with them until a mental health professional can take over.
The University of Arkansas journalism students found these issues with veteran suicide and homelessness after a semester-long project examining veteran health care data and interviewing officials with the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, which runs the Fayetteville VA hospital.
The students, writing for the university’s Razorback Reporter, interviewed more than 30 veterans as well as more than a dozen VA and local officials.
Overall, local veterans said they were pleased with the health care provided by the Fayetteville VA hospital. The trickier problem, however, involves reducing homelessness among veterans.
Throughout all of Northwest Arkansas, the number of homeless veterans has grown 114 percent to at least 233 from 2011 to 2017, according to Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of the Community and Family Institute at the university, which does a local count of the homeless population every other year.
The reasons so many veterans have congregated in the Fayetteville area include the local Veterans Health Care Systems of the Ozarks hospital and a strong local network of city and community support. For example, Fayetteville is the only local government that has a program in place that helps house the homeless, including homeless veterans, said Yolanda Fields, the city’s Director of Community Development.
Some of that support now is threatened. Earlier this month, the VA announced plans to slash the $460 million budget for Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, a housing program. Amid criticism, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin backed away from the proposal and the HUD/VASH program will continue until at least 2019 when local VA leaders will report on how and where to allocate the funding.
If an area with a growing homeless veteran population begins losing funding used to help reduce the issue, progress might be slowed down, Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said Fayetteville does “a pretty good job. We've got a pretty good, active VA homeless program. We've got a good VA hospital.”
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen if the support goes away.”
This story is produced by a joint reporting effort of the University of Arkansas's Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism and Arkansas Public Media. Prof. Rob Wells contributed to this story. APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.