While serving in the Army in Iraq, Mark Anderson, of Brooklyn, believed he was fulfilling a lifelong dream of helping his country. When Anderson returned to New York, the dream quickly spiraled into a nightmare of homelessness and mental illness.
“I’ve been homeless for over a year,” Anderson said. “Right now my main problem is housing. I got back from Iraq, and I’ve got nowhere to live. It ain’t right.”
Now Anderson, 38, survives only on the good will of New York’s straphangers. Every day he is on the subway, begging strangers for money.
“In order for me to make ends meet, I got to get on the train and ask people to help me until I get my benefits,” Anderson said. “On average, I make about $50 after being on the train for four hours. That’s enough for food, but that’s about it. A cheap hotel up in Harlem costs more a night than that.”
There are more than 200,000 veterans living on streets and in shelters across the country. Many of those veterans also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness that affects people exposed to extreme violence. Military combat is one of the leading causes of the disorder. Approximately 600,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to Army statistics.
”People join the military for a lot of different reasons, but one of the reasons they join is because the economy is not great. While they’re in the military, there is a level of stability,” said Jose Vasquez, Secretary for Iraq Veterans Against the War. “If you leave the military and you’re a combat veteran with PTSD, then you go back into an environment that kind of led you to join the military in the first place. So there’s not really a lot of options.”
Anderson, like so many other homeless veterans, suffers from PTSD. He takes three different medications to ease the symptoms, and he has gone to a number of support groups. But living on the streets, he said, has taken a toll on his mental health that no medication can fix.
“I went to Iraq, and I saw a lot of things I wasn’t prepared to see. I dealt with a lot of emotional things that I wasn’t ready to deal with,” Anderson said. “It’s seeing people get bombed up and just not knowing if you’re going to live one day to the next.”
Anderson is proud of his time in the military, but he is angered by the circumstances that took him from soldier to beggar.
“I just want to be a productive member of society,” Anderson said. “But this is just making my depression worse.”