Crisis Ministries in Charleston, S.C., sheltered four homeless women veterans in 2006. In 2007, it had served 16 with two months left to go.
It’s one sign that the number of homeless female vets is increasing. Many fear their numbers will continue to grow because more women are serving in the military. There were 201,575 women in active duty in 2006, according to the Department of Defense. It is also expected that many will return home from the war in Iraq with the same problems their male peers have had to deal with over the years.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve and be prepared,” said Stacey Denaux, executive director of Crisis Ministries, which recently received a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) grant and per diem award that will allow the organization to dedicate eight beds to female veterans and enhance its services. The grant is expected to be worth a little more than $90,000.
Denaux doesn’t think she will have any trouble filling the beds at Crisis Ministries.
An estimated 8,000 female vets are homeless in the country. The female veteran population of 1.75 million constitutes about 7 percent of all veterans, and the VA estimates that the percentage will grow to about 10 percent by 2017.
The female veterans that Crisis Ministries has served have ranged in age from 28 to 61.
Including both men and women, approximately 195,827 veterans were homeless on any given night in 2006, an increase of almost 1 percent from 194,254 in 2005, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) in a newly released report, Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans. Many more, about 495,400, experience homeless over the course of a year. Veterans make up a disproportionate number of the homeless. In 2005, vets made up 11 percent of the adult population but 26 percent of the homeless, said NAEH.
In addition to the factors that can contribute to anyone being homeless, veterans face additional challenges, including prolonged separation from traditional support groups. The study also noted that homeless veterans have high rates of health-related problems and disabilities. Mental-health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, are prevalent as well.
Female vets, veterans with disabilities, and unmarried or separated veterans were more likely to experience a severe housing cost burden, according to the report.
A home for female vets
The Mary E. Walker House on the grounds of the Coatesville VA Medical Center in Coatesville, Pa., is always full, and there’s a waiting list. Thirty female veterans live at the development at a time, and residents can stay for up to two years.
Since opening in January 2005, the development has housed 98 women, said Marsha Four, program director. A veteran herself, Four was in the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam. Of her recent residents, three served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is still too early to see the real numbers from those wars, but those veterans are out there and starting to come in, Four said. The largest percentage of Walker House residents have been women who served after Vietnam and before the Persian Gulf war.
When a comment is made that people don’t think of homeless women as being veterans, Four politely offers a correction. “People don’t think about women being veterans, period,” she said.
The VA is targeting funding to programs that serve women, said Pete Dougherty, director of VA homeless programs. The last round targeted about $1.5 million, estimated Dougherty, who was preparing for another round.
Named after a Civil War doctor who was the only woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Walker House is a program of the nonprofit Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center. The development’s staff includes a social worker, an education specialist, and a job developer. It has also been funded under the VA grant and per diem program, which funds transitional housing developments. The VA does not have a permanent housing program. A partnership with the VA provides two psychologists and a psychiatrist to help the women at Walker House.
One of the residents is 50-year-old Audrey, who served for 13 years in the Army. She first joined the service after high school in 1975 and then went back in 1998 as a member of the National Guard. One of her jobs was as a heavy-duty trailer driver. She has been living in the Walker House since August 2006, and works with babies at a nearby learning center.
“It is a very special place, but you must be willing to change for the better,” said Audrey, who asked that her last name not be used. She admits to having abused alcohol and drugs.
Audrey came to the Walker House from a shelter in Philadelphia, where she was homeless for a few months. “One day of being homeless is a long time for me,” she said.
Four has found that many homeless women veterans have experienced child abuse, sexual abuse, and other violence. “They come with a lot of pain,” she said.
Coming from the streets, they have had to do almost anything to try to keep themselves safe.
“We feel it is important to have them in a gender-specific program,” Four said. “There’s a better focus on themselves … Many have had extreme relationships with men in the past and are not comfortable in a mixed-gender environment.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has released a new report, Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans, which found that 333,627 veterans were homeless in 2006.
Other findings include:
Veterans made up 26 percent of the homeless population.
An estimated 44,000 to 64,000 veterans were chronically homeless in 2005.
Nearly a half-million veterans were severely rent burdened and were paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent.
Female vets are more likely to have a severe housing cost burden. Women make up about 7 percent of veterans, but 13.5 percent them have severe housing cost burdens. For more information, visit www.naeh.org.