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How About This for Supporting the Troops: Help Our 55,000 Female Homeless Veterans

There are 55,000 homeless women vets in the U.S. and that number is only getting bigger. What are we going to do about it?

Homelessness among women veterans is a growing national concern. Tens of thousands of women veterans are fighting a war they did not choose to wage, and many of them have had multiple traumatic experiences, not only during service but also before and after. These traumatic experiences, which can include everything from combat-related stress to childhood abuse to domestic violence, contribute to this growing crisis.

There are some 55,000 homelesswomen veterans in the U.S. today, and that number is likely to grow as the number of women veterans increases overall. (The VA projects the number to grow from 1.8 million, or 8.2 percent of the total number of veterans, in 2010 to 2.1 million, or 15.2 percent of the total, in 2036.)

Research shows that trauma is a gateway to homelessness. As many as 93 percent of female veterans have been exposed to some type of trauma. The high concentration of trauma among women veterans contributes to the fact that women veterans are four times more likely to become homeless than their civilian counterparts. Among homeless women veterans, 53 percent have experienced military sexual trauma (MST), compared to one in five among women veterans in general.

As more women are deployed in combat operations, trauma is becoming an urgent concern in women veterans’ care.  TheVA reports that 182,000 women have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to 41,000 in the Gulf War. This increase in women deployment correlates the number of women veterans who suffer PTSD and traumatic brain injury, two major risks related to homelessness.

Jennifer, a 45-year-old homeless veteran, shared with AlterNet her story of struggling with MST over the years. Jennifer joined the Marine Corps in 1988, but her dream of building a military career was shattered just a year later when she was sexually assaulted by a staff sergeant while on duty overseas.

The perpetrator was tried and found guilty, but with little support, Jennifer started a downward spiral. For more than 20 years, Jennifer has struggled with substance addiction and mental illnesses. (She’s been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, depression and PTSD.) She has a difficult time holding a job. She’s neglected her children. After two failed marriages, Jennifer hit a new low point 18 months ago and became homeless.

Those who work with homeless women veterans would easily recognize this familiar pattern: trauma, addition/mental illness, homelessness. Often the cycle repeats itself. A woman interviewed for a VA study described her experience living that pattern:

“It’s like for me, you start with the rape. Then you go into the drugs. And drugs leads to homelessness. You regroup. You go back to the rape. You go back to the drugs. Go back to the homelessness....You go to stay with people and they rape you. It’s a vicious cycle until something stops.”

Trauma-Informed Care for Homeless Women Veterans

There are few available services tailored to women veterans’ needs, and many homeless women vets are not aware of the programs and services that are available to them due to programs’ inadequate outreach and communication.

In March, theVAsOfficeofInspectorGeneralauditedanumberofVA-fundedhomelessservices providers, and the results raised a few red flags. The OIG found that 31 percent of the providers it reviewed did not adequately address the safety, security and privacy risks of veterans, especially female veterans. In one case, a sex offender was placed in a facility where a homeless women veteran and her 18-month-old son lived.

But these issues are not new. Last year, the Government Accountability Office expressed safety concerns with VA-funded housing. Incidents of sexual harassment or assault on women residents had been reported and there were no minimum gender-specific safety and security standards for the programs.

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