The path to homelessness
There are many ways female veterans find themselves on a path to homelessness, including the aftermath of the all-too-prevalent military sexual trauma (MST). It doesn’t have to be chronic, long-term mental health issues or substance use and abuse that creates the problem. In fact, there’s a risk that if we consider homeless women veterans to be outliers, we will miss the awareness of just how common an experience this is for too many women veterans, not just once, but multiple times over the course of their post-military lives.
Women veterans who experience homelessness are black, white, Hispanic, Native American, and every other race and ethnicity. They have served proudly in every branch of the U.S. military, on active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard — and in the national guard and reserves. They are older, younger, and every age in between. They served in every era where women have served. They live in every part of the country, and increasingly they live in rural areas even further away from what few services exist to meet their needs. They have served as enlisted and officers. They have served for less than a complete term of enlistment, and they have spent 20-30 years in the military, retiring with a pension but still unable to make ends meet because of catastrophic challenges that bumped them off the path into homelessness. These women served alongside their brothers. Sadly, when they come home, they have their own unique re-integration issues, challenges and successes.
The face of female veteran homelessness: There are more than two million women veterans alive today in the U.S. A portion of them will need a greater awareness of the very normality of their struggle with unstable housing, and the creation and delivery of resources that meet their needs, starting with trauma-informed outreach and housing options. VA, HUD, the Department of Labor all track aspects of women veteran homelessness and provide resources that relate. More attention and a larger, more effective safety net are needed.
It seems almost impossible to come up with a reasonably accurate count of how many homeless female veterans there actually are. For that count, the federal government relies on several notoriously imprecise methods that are particularly inaccurate when attempting to estimate this population, because of behaviors and preferences that leave them largely uncounted. Yet being accurately represented in annual federal estimates is essential for homeless female veterans — because everything from funding to resources to services that address this unique population depends on it. Being undercounted — or uncounted — perpetuates the very invisibility of these women, the fastest growing segment of homeless veterans today.
A common theme in research done on homeless female veterans is the perception that existing programs/services for veterans favor men. It is believed that many seemingly gender-neutral programs fail to ensure equality in the level and types of assistance provided to both men and women. The top priorities of women veterans are achieving independence, finding permanent housing, obtaining education/training and employment, meeting their financial obligations, and fulfilling their parental responsibilities. They seek resources and programs to facilitate achieving these goals.
Female veterans express a need for sex-segregated residential centers staffed by qualified individuals who are sensitive to the female veteran culture. Women, especially those with a history of MST and domestic violence, report feeling more secure and comfortable in a female-only environment. Single-sex housing and treatment arrangements may facilitate recovery for these women. Locating centers in safer residential areas, away from drug dealers and violence, is also important.