A refuge for homeless female veterans

Philadelphia Inquirer

The military gave Sharon Boyd all the things that life in Pottstown, Montgomery County, couldn’t: economic stability, career advancement, and the chance to travel.

But after 18 years in the service, Boyd was sleeping in her Oldsmobile Royale, battling post-traumatic stress disorder and a cocaine addiction.

Boyd is one of an estimated 6,000 homeless female veterans nationwide, a group whose numbers are expected to rise as the number of women in the military increases.

But as homeless female veterans become more visible, the reasons for their homelessness remain largely unclear.

“People go into the military, on one hand, to flee from unstable social circumstances and because they think it’ll give them better opportunity,” said psychiatrist Robert Rosenheck, coauthor of a study of homeless female veterans and the director of Veterans Affairs’ Northeast Program Evaluation Center. “Those disadvantages, while perhaps partially ameliorated by military service, in the end leave some at great risk for becoming homeless.”

Boyd, 47, now lives at Mary E. Walker House, a 30-bed transitional housing program for women at the Coatesville VA Medical Center. Walker House, which opened in January, is the military’s latest tactic to support this new group of veterans in need, and is the largest facility of its kind in the country.

Nationally, more than 315,000 veterans are homeless on any night, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. About 10,000 are estimated to live in Pennsylvania and 8,300 in New Jersey. A small percentage are women.

Like their male counterparts, homeless female veterans often suffer from a combination of drug or alcohol addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other untreated mental-health problems, such as depression. These veterans may also be dealing with the aftermath of sexual trauma, which can itself trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say.

The adjustment to civilian life can be the breaking point as the women move to low-paying jobs with few family supports and feel the loss of an independent lifestyle.

“We have enough homeless women veterans to have a women-veterans transitional program,” said Marsha Four, a Vietnam veteran and the program director of homeless services at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center, which runs Walker House. “They have specific needs different from male veterans’.”

Sharon Boyd’s experience reflects the issues that the Department of Veterans Affairs and researchers are trying to address. Boyd spent 10 of her Army years stationed in Germany, where, she said, she was sexually assaulted by another soldier. She didn’t file charges because she was afraid of retaliation. Boyd, who worked as a paralegal, was also injured in a training accident that burned her face, arms and chest. She began having nightmares about the assault and the training accident.

In 1989, Boyd left the Army to attend college and work as a paralegal, but she was laid off in 1991. She struggled with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually, drug addiction. Boyd reenlisted, hoping to regain her independence, but she couldn’t shake the nightmares or the drugs.

“I felt independent when I was in the military,” Boyd said. “I got my education, traveled. It was very rewarding. After the military, you have to redefine yourself. It’s hard.”

Recently, Boyd and 10 other women were living at the Walker House. All of the staff members are women, and the veterans can get substance-abuse treatment, counseling, and help with budgeting and other life skills.

“They’re going to need more programs like this,” said Boyd, who wants to reenlist. “All the women fighting in the Iraqi war – they’re coming back and moving in with men. You don’t want to, but you do it because you have no place to go. When I leave here, I won’t have to move in with some man to make it.”

Of Veterans Affairs’ 7,600 beds for homeless veterans nationwide, 1,700 are available for women in coed programs, and 206 are in women-only programs, up from 10 in 1998.

The government keeps no statistics on the amount of money spent overall to assist homeless veterans, but it says the average cost per bed in a transitional-housing program is $11,000 a year.

The risk of homelessness is two to four times as much for female veterans as for other women, according to the 2003 study coauthored by Rosenheck.Male veterans are not quite two times as likely to be homeless as are nonveteran men.

Researchers are still investigating whether the increased risk is a result of military service or reflects a predisposition of the people who enlist.

However, female veterans have higher rates of sexual trauma than nonveterans, according to Rosenheck.

At least two other Veterans Affairs studies indicate that 15 percent to 23 percent of female veterans seeking VA services report having been sexually assaulted while on active duty. Many of these women will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Female veterans, once they leave the military, also tend to live in an area for a shorter time that nonveterans, 11 years compared with 22 years, according to Rosenheck’s study. They may also stay in the last city where they were deployed, leaving them without family support.

Brandalyn Marks, 30, was unprepared to be on her own when she left the Air Force in 1997. During four years of service, Marks lived in a townhouse on Travis Air Force Base in Northern California and worked as a pharmacy technician. The military helped her pay for child care.

But when she left the service, Marks had to move from the base into her mother’s house in Triangle, Va., along with her 18-month-old daughter. She had trouble finding a job and an apartment she could afford.

“I was having problems getting back into the ‘real world,’ ” said Marks, who now lives at Walker House. “I didn’t have a place to live. I was a single mom, and I couldn’t support my daughter like I could before. It was hard to cope.”

Marks left her daughter with her mother and moved in with her grandparents in East Greenville, Montgomery County, hoping to find a better job and stability. Less than a year later, she was struggling with depression and feeling guilty that she was unable to support her daughter. She began drinking heavily and dating abusive men. She left her grandparents’ home.

“I couldn’t shake my depression,” said Marks, who stayed with friends and coworkers for three years. “I felt the walls were closing in on me. I had a daughter I wasn’t with, and I began to think she was better off with my mother.”

Marks entered treatment for depression at the Coatesville VA hospital in August 2004 and moved into Walker House when it opened in January. She now works full time in retail and hopes to be reunited soon with her daughter.

Child care has topped the list of unmet needs for homeless female veterans for several years. Few programs allow children to live with their mothers. Walker House, for example, helps relatives caring for the veteran’s children by contributing to expenses such as day care and clothing.

“The shelters and transitional housing don’t allow kids, so where do these women go? They’re going to the street,” said Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care with the American Legion in Washington.

The military is trying to meet those needs, said Gordon Mansfield, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, during a visit to Walker House in early April.

“There’s a military saying that we don’t leave our wounded behind. We are going into battle to bring back those missing in America to let them know we have not forgotten.”

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