Of the 141,000 U.S. military veterans who spent at least one night in a homeless shelter in 2011, nearly 10% were women—up more than 20% from the number in 2009. Female vets are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. They sleep on the streets and in shelters, but also in storage lockers and in cars parked inconspicuously on the edges of shopping center lots—to avoid rape and other violence of the streets.
Illinois Congressman and double amputee veteran Tammy Duckworth reports that the number of homeless female veterans has doubled in the last decade. Today, she states, female soldiers are twice as likely to become homeless than male veterans.
Patricia Lee Brown, writing in the New York Times says:
‘While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs. A common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists conclude, is military sexual trauma (MST) from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
‘Of more than two dozen female veterans interviewed by the Times, 16 said that they had been sexually assaulted in the service and another said that she had been stalked.’
California is home to a quarter of the country’s homeless veterans. A recent survey found 909 homeless women in Greater Los Angeles—a 50% increase since 2009.
Female veterans face a complex “web of vulnerability,” said Dr. Donna L. Washington, a physician at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs medical center, who has studied the ways the women become homeless, including poverty and military sexual trauma. Her study found that 53% of homeless female veterans have experienced MST, and that many women entered the military to escape family conflict and abuse.
Female veterans are far more likely than men to be single parents. Congress ordered the VA to help them, but they wait an average of four months to obtain stable housing, leaving those with children at a greater risk of homelessness. Unfortunately, more than 60% of transitional housing programs receiving grants from the VA did not accept children, or restricted their age and number, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Lori S. Katz, director of a women’s health clinic in Long Beach, CA, and co-founder of Renew, a treatment program for women with MST, says (in the same NYT article):
‘Reverberations from MST often set off a downward spiral for women into alcohol and substance abuse, depression and domestic violence.’
Pledging to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the US government is pouring millions of dollars into permanent voucher programs, like HUD-Vash, for the most chronically homeless veterans. A newer VA program, with $300 million allocated by Congress, is aimed at prevention, providing short-term emergency money to help with down payments, utility bills and other issues.
This makes both moral and financial sense, since the VA estimates that the cost care for a homeless veteran, including hospitalizations and reimbursement for community-based shelters, is three times greater than for a housed veteran. A pilot project providing free drop-in child care is under way at three VA medical centers.