[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/10/art.menendez1110.gi.jpg caption="Sen. Menendez said Tuesday that 'Veterans' homelessness is a national disgrace.'"]
Washington (CNN) - Americans from coast to coast are getting ready to enjoy the annual Veterans Day holiday this week.
For thousands of homeless men and women who once served in the armed forces, however, the day is merely another reminder of "the thin line that exists between survival and despair," one U.S. senator said Tuesday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey noted at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the subject.
"Veterans' homelessness is a national disgrace," he said.
"American heroes (are) huddled over a heating grate in the shadow of the Washington Monument, or curled up on a bench by the war memorials on the Mall in Washington, or trying to find shelter in cities across America."
The VA has concluded that 260,000 veterans are homeless over the course of a typical year, he added. An estimated one in four homeless men or women served in the military.
The increasing number of servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the economic downturn, Menendez noted, has contributed to a recent spike in the number of homeless families with veterans.
"The federal government ... is not doing nearly enough when so many new veterans are falling through the cracks," he said. "The current system of dealing with their needs is being overwhelmed."
The VA is on track to spend approximately $3.2 billion on programs for homeless veterans this year, claimed Peter Dougherty, who heads up the VA's programs addressing homelessness. Out of that total, $2.7 billion will be directed toward health care services.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki recently outlined a five-year program designed to eliminate homelessness among veterans.
There may be a number of federal and state services, Iraq war veteran Lila Guy argued, but "most veterans don't know what options are out there for them."
Guy, who spent a year in Iraq with the Army, found herself homeless shortly after returning to the United States in 2006. Her husband left her and their children at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when he learned that she would have to redeploy within a year, she said.
Guy was able to get a hardship discharge, but had trouble readjusting to civilian life as a single mother. Finding herself suddenly homeless, she moved back in with her parents.
She was eventually able to move into VA-assisted housing after being helped by her congressman, Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania.
A lot of soldiers, "come back with so many mental issues," she told the committee.
"The transition is hard. ... They train (you) to fight and do all those things (but) they don't teach you how to live a normal life when you get back."