— By JIM VINES
Even as the Pentagon lifts the ban on women in combat roles, returning servicewomen are facing a battlefield of a different kind.
They are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, an often invisible group bouncing between sofa and air mattress, overnighting in public storage lockers, living in cars and learning to park inconspicuously on the outskirts of shopping centers to avoid the violence of the streets.
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, or MST, from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
In a recent interview by The New York Times, more than a dozen female veterans said that they had been sexually assaulted during their service, and another said she had been stalked. Many women entered the military to escape family conflict and abuse.
Of 141,000 veterans nationwide who spent at least one night in a shelter in 2011, nearly 10 percent were women, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, up from 7.5 percent in 2009. Returning veterans face a Catch-22. Congress authorized the VA to take care of them, but not their families. Women wait an average of four months to secure stable housing, leaving those with children at higher risk for homelessness. More than 60 percent of transitional housing programs receiving grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs do not accept children, or restrict their age and number, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. The lack of jobs for female veterans also contributes to homelessness.
California, home to a quarter of the nation’s veterans, is also home to a quarter of its homeless women veterans. In greater Los Angeles, a survey found more than 909 female veterans among them, a 50 percent increase since 2010.
Pledging to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the government is pouring millions of dollars into permanent voucher programs, like HUD-Vash ( www.va.gov/homeless/hud-vash.asp ), 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.
The government’s motivation is financial as well as patriotic. 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.
Projects and organizations that are non-profits continue to grow to provide assistance for women veterans. Protect-Connect-Renew targeted toward women veterans, offers conferences with workshops dealing with various issues effecting women veterans, as well as providing relaxation activities, and one on one counseling. Grace After Fire is one of these organizations providing assistance. For inquires regarding conferences and workshops, contact them at 800-362-6477 or at www.graceafterfire.org.
Speak to you again next week.
Jim Vines is commander of AmVets Post 133.