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.

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There are some 55,000homelesswomen 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.

The VA has vowed to improve safety and security of the providers it funds to serve women veterans. However, ensuring safety and security is only part of what needs to be done to better help homeless women veterans.

“Some services providers overlook the impact of trauma. They mislabel or misunderstand people’s challenges and behaviors, when they are in a lot of ways responses to traumatic experiences that people have. So what can happen is that it can lead sometimes to services...designed to help people who experienced trauma end up retraumatizing people inadvertently. By retraumatizing I mean in ways sort of recreating situations that may mimic past trauma,” said Kathleen Guarino of the National Center on Family Homelessness.

Guarino worked with the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau last year to create Trauma-InformedCareforWomenVeteransExperience Homelessness, a guide for community homeless service providers that work with women veterans. According to Guarino, the key to success for service providers is to “identify what [women veterans’] unique needs are, and to design [homeless service] programs to speak to those needs.”

That means programs must avoid putting women veterans in situations that mimic their traumatic experiences -- situations that make them feel vulnerable or helpless. Details such as installing locks on doors become crucial in facilities housing women veterans. Structural arrangements such as including women veterans in making policies and rules for themselves are also important because they give women veterans a sense of control over their own lives.

Signs of distress can be subtle. “As somebody becomes agitated or shuts down or becomes more anxious, that could be...misunderstood or mislabeled as defensive or difficult, kind of label them in more negative ways. What may be really happening is somebody is having a trauma-related response,” said Guarino. That’s why a good understanding of trauma should be an important qualification in those who work with this population.

With proper help, homeless women veterans can break their vicious cycle and get back on their feet. Jennifer has been receiving trauma-informed care for three months and is making remarkable progress in the Veterans Village of San Diego, a residential program for veterans with addiction and mental illness. Sober for four months, she has reconnected with her two older daughters and is getting ready for a new semester at the City College of San Diego, where she will study skin care. She said her life has been “turned around."

Though hopeful for the future, Jennifer wished that help had come earlier. “To turn to addiction, to lose your family, seriously, that should have been acknowledged in the beginning,” she said. “But that was a long time ago. Now I just started recovering and it’s been 20 years.”

Empowering Women in the Military and Beyond

In the recently released documentary TheInvisible War, director Kirby Dick documents heart-wrenching stories of military sexual violence victims. Many of these women are retraumatized by the responses to their attacks. In a male-oriented military culture, victims of sexual assault areoftendiscouragedorintimidatedso theydonotreporttheir assaults. And when assaults are reported, they can be dismissed, and victims blamed.

“When you have military sexual trauma, people look at you like it’s your fault or you did something wrong, or you provoked it. And then in the male-oriented environment, they look at you like it is your fault completely is tough,” said Jennifer, adding that her roommate is an MST survivor who never reported her assault.

What makes it difficult for women in the military or women veterans to come forward and/or ask for help is the high expectation of self-reliance. “You have to be tough. I chose to be in the military, so things shouldn’t bother me. That’s how I felt. And I felt like I was very weak if I said anything, like I was whining,” Jennifer said. Until recently, she did not tell anybody in her personal life about her assault -- not her ex-husband, her children or her friends.

The military isn’t the only place where bad things happen. Many homeless women veterans have experienced multiple traumas before and after their military service as well. Taken together, these traumas become a huge burden.

It is reported that 52 percent of homeless women veterans had pre-military adversity" such as child abuse (sexual and physical) and domestic violence. Post-military intimate partner abuse is also common among this population.

Worse, pre-military abuse often contributes to a young woman’s decision to enter the military in the first place. As a homeless woman veteran told VA researchers, she joined the military to get out of her abusive environment, hoping that the military would be a “safe haven.”

What we see here is a pipeline that produces trauma, and it should be taken seriously if we are serious about ending homelessness among women veterans. When girls and young women find themselves in abusive situations, they should have more options than joining the military or sleeping on the streets. Only when women are validated, respected and empowered in the military and in society at large, will the wounds of those who have been hurt start to heal.

Jin Zhao is a freelance journalist, multimedia producer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Nation and on AlterNet. Follow her on twitter @jinealogy and visit her blog