The Veterans Affairs Department has identified 1,500 homeless veterans from the current wars and says 400 of them have participated in its programs specifically targeting homelessness.
Some advocates say the early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans vulnerable.
''We're going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous,'' said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.
While services to homeless veterans have improved in the past 20 years, advocates say more financial resources still are needed. With the spotlight on the plight of Iraq veterans, they hope more will be done to prevent homelessness and provide affordable housing to the younger veterans while there's a window of opportunity.
''When the Vietnam War ended, that was part of the problem. The war was over, it was off TV, nobody wanted to hear about it,'' said John Keaveney, a Vietnam veteran and a founder of New Directions in Los Angeles, which provides substance-abuse help, job training and shelter to veterans.
Keaveney said it's difficult for his group to persuade some homeless Iraq veterans to stay for treatment and help because they don't relate to the older veterans.
The Iraq vets seeking help with homelessness are more likely to be women, less likely to have substance-abuse problems, but more likely to have mental illness, said Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the V.A.
Overall, 45 percent of participants in the V.A.'s homeless programs have a diagnosable mental illness and more than three out of four have a substance-abuse problem, while 35 percent have both, Dougherty said.
The V.A. has more than 15,000 residential rehabilitative, transitional and permanent beds for homeless veterans nationwide. It spends about $265 million annually on homeless-specific programs and about $1.5 billion for all health care costs for homeless veterans.