Homelessness Among Women Veterans in America
Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss
Published: 2012-02-16 : (Rev. 2013-06-05)
The number of American women veterans who end up homeless or in poverty has almost doubled over the last ten years.
Main DigestThe numbers of women serving in combat zones is increasing, and the numbers of women veterans who end up homeless has almost doubled over the last ten years according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Female Veterans - There are almost two million women veterans in America, women have served in some way in every conflict. 33 thousand women served in World War One and almost 500,000 took part in World War Two. During the Korean era 120,000 women were in uniform and seven thousand were deployed in theater during Viet Nam. During Desert Storm 7% of the total U.S. forces deployed were women - over forty thousand of them - userpages.aug.com/captbarb/
Women in America have been healers, great patriots, as well as warriors for the nation's military efforts from the Revolution to the women in uniform today. Images of Molly Pitcher loading a cannon, as well as the quill of Phillis Wheatley are parts of American history, as well as Womenette of World War I, the Women's Army Corps (WACS) of World War II, the nurses during the Vietnam War, and the women pilots of today. Women in America have answered the call the serve in the armed forces with the same integrity and honor as men, although they many times do not identify themselves as veterans. Without question, women who have served are veterans as well.
Women Veterans and Homelessness
The numbers of women serving in combat zones is increasing, and the numbers of women veterans who end up homeless has almost doubled over the last ten years according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Where younger veterans are concerned, homelessness is even more pronounced. One in ten homeless veterans under the age of 45 is a woman, and unlike male veterans - many of these women are also single parents.
One of the growing concerns is that as more veterans return from both Iraq and Afghanistan to an economy that isn't the greatest at home, the number of women veterans who will become homeless will increase. The number of women who became homeless after leaving the military doubled in the last ten years to around 6,500 women in America by the fall of 2010. Genevieve Chase, founder and executive director of American Women Veterans states, "A lot of homeless shelters for veterans do not accept women, much less women with children. They've just been falling through the cracks."
Genevieve also says the fastest growing segment of the homeless veteran population is women with children. There is a diverse set of complex issues and behaviors that has been identified as contributing to homelessness and women veterans. These issues and behaviors include:
- Job loss
- Substance abuse
- Domestic violence
- Mental health issues
- Divorce or separation
- Military Sexual Trauma
- Lack of veterans' benefits
- Ineligibility for veterans' benefits
- Post-military legal issues; probation
- Lack of job training and skills assessment
- Lack of a family or social support network
- Understanding and accessing veterans' benefits
- Difficulties with determining eligibility for veterans' benefits
- Difficulty with transferring skills obtain in the military to civilian employment
Improvement of Services and Resources for Homeless Women Veterans
One of the common themes in listening sessions has been the perception that programs and services that exist favor male veterans. People participating in these sessions believed that a number of apparently gender-neutral programs are failing to ensure equality in both the types and levels of assistance they provide to men and women veterans. The main priorities of women veterans included:
- Finding permanent housing
- Achievement of independence
- Meeting their financial obligations
- Fulfilling their parental responsibilities
- Obtaining education, training and employment
Women veterans also desired to find programs and resources to facilitate the achievement of their goals. Programs whose main goal is to serve women veterans can better serve them by including a number of things, which are listed below.
Sex-segregated Residential Centers:
Women veterans expressed their desire for residential centers that are sex-segregated and staffed by people who are qualified and sensitive to the women veterans' culture. Women veterans, particularly those who have a history of military sexual trauma and domestic violence, reported feeling more comfortable and secure in an environment that is female-only. Single-sex housing and treatment can facilitate recovery for women veterans. Locating centers in residential areas that are safer and away from violence and drug dealers is equally important.
Childcare, Housing, and Programs for Women Veterans with Children:
Women veterans who are homeless are many times separated from and lose the custody of their own children. An ideal residential center for these women would accommodate them and their children by offering housing for children of every age with 24-hour daycare services, special programs for women veterans with young children, and support groups for mothers.
Career Counseling, Support, Skills Assessment, Job Training, and Placement Assistance:
Services related to careers would include help with the location of good jobs for women veterans, clothing that is appropriate for work, as well as public transportation that is either free or affordable. The month of November in 2009 found the Women's Bureau conducting follow-up discussions with participants of earlier listening sessions to talk about specific barriers that limit women veterans' ability to remain employed. What they found is the barriers included a number of factors that contribute to homelessness as well, such as a family member's medical or psychological disability, abusive relationships, substance abuse, layoffs, and employers who go out of business.
Personal, Family, and Financial Counseling:
Service providers have reported the need for long-term professional counseling in relation to issues involving domestic abuse, mental health, as well as substance abuse. Women veterans have reported the need for help with improving their credit and additional financial counseling. Programs are needed to facilitate the connections between women veterans who are homeless, their family members and the communities they are a part of, to include religious institutions. Peer-to-peer mentoring programs are very beneficial in assisting women veterans to learn from one another's experiences.
Resource Professionals for Women Veterans:
The professionals would be specially trained and would have a solid understanding of both civilian and military environments. They would provide women veterans with confidential guidance in relation to a variety of issues that are specific to women. The professionals would assist women veterans with obtaining documents such as governmental applications, birth certificates, or child immunizations for example. They would assist women veterans with obtaining housing or legal services. These professionals would have the ability to offer women veterans referrals to health care services that are not available through the VA, as well as assistance with documenting military sexual trauma and services that are related to disability.
Providers of services raised some specific concerns in relation to program design and implementation. They said it would help if funds were awarded for periods of between five and ten years in order to assist with long-term program planning and administration. Service providers worried that otherwise money would run out and they would not be able to receive more funds.
Guidelines regarding grants could be modified in order to permit increased flexibility in relation to how money is spent; for example, the ability to reallocate funding when needed. One service provider made the suggestion that the government should establish special hiring considerations for homeless women veterans that is tied to grant funds. Another provider said they would like the VA to provide remote access to their computer system so documentation and paperwork could be improved. At this time, people involved in home visitation have to return to their offices to document the visits they have made.
Another service provider said it was hard to hold women veterans involved in the court system accountable where their treatment plans were concerned. Still another provider said that complying with per diem rules is both hard and confusing.
Increasing the Participation and Engagement in Programs and Services
Ensuring that homeless women veterans and service providers are aware of local and national resources and services is important. There is no highly-publicized and central source of information that is accurate for women veterans. There is an opportunity for a government agency to take the lead in this regard and provide this crucial information.
A suggestion has been made that a national coalition of both governmental and community organizations could be formed to organize partnerships in order to support women veterans who are homeless. A central source of information concerning women veterans could be compiled and then publicized with the goal of facilitating access to the services and supports women veterans need.
With such a source of information available, service providers would gain a solid understanding of veteran-related resources and eligibility for veterans' benefits. Through the listening sessions, service providers expressed a desire for a more integrated communication and delivery of services and benefits for women veterans. In order to market the resources to the largest number of veterans possible, the VA could pursue more extensive research concerning women veterans to learn about them and how they are motivated to seek out and pursue services.
Homeless women veterans during these listening sessions presented a number of barriers they face in finding services, to include a lack of awareness and understanding of veterans' benefits, not knowing where to go for help, shame, mistrust of authority, pride, a resistance to identifying as veterans, and a lack of adequate transportation. Participants in the listening sessions said there is a disincentive to pursue treatment for health issues before separating from the military because it might delay the separation process itself.
Members of the military who report mental health or substance abuse issues face the potential for a dishonorable discharge. One participant suggested the need to collect assessments that are more accurate from veterans, therefore connecting them to resources and assistance that are more appropriate. Accomplishing this would involve a survey after the person is discharged from the military.
A way for service providers to improve program uptake is through increased outreach efforts and communications in regards to the resources that are available. As one participant stated, "If you are going to get the word out and want to get the public's attention, you should put the information ( posters, brochures) at the public libraries, emergency room areas of hospitals, pediatrician offices, rehabilitation centers, food stamp offices, welfare offices, police stations, jails, prisons, everywhere." Other places for outreach efforts included places such as:
- Food pantries
- Reserve units
- Pregnancy clinics
- Homeless shelters
- Radio and other media
- Domestic violence shelters
Social service agencies should screen for women veterans, as well as other community and religious organizations.
These agencies and organizations should serve as sources of referral as well. Outreach counselors that reach out to women veterans in shelters, under bridges, and where ever they live are believed to be crucial components in the successful communication and fostering of program participation.
Broader access to veterans' services is another idea presented through the listening sessions. Establishment of satellite programs and the distribution of resources in non-urban areas would facilitate such access. The eligibility criteria for programs should enable anyone who needs assistance to receive some level of services. Staff members should be non-judgmental, as well as sensitive to differences in a veterans' race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, lifestyle choices or drug use. The VA could advise its staff members and providers in regards to the issues and solutions that homeless women veterans consider being key to improving their lives and use the knowledge to improve VA services.
Simplification of the processes involved with accessing services would be beneficial for homeless women veterans, who often times find the VA bureaucracy hard to navigate. Changes in the hours services are provided at VA centers in order to accommodate women who are working, as well as women with care giving responsibilities, would also help to decrease the potential for homelessness among women veterans. The VA system needs to be capable of handling increased demands for services.
Military and VA Roles in Fighting Homelessness among Women Veterans
Participants in the listening sessions made various suggestions in regards to improving the military separation process with the goal of helping to prevent or overcome homelessness. The participants described their experiences with transitioning as being unsatisfactory, inefficient, and non-user friendly. For some of these women leaving the military involved physical, emotional, and professional upheaval. This was compounded by the fact that stages of the process were not outlined beforehand. In order to better prepare women to re-enter civilian life, the military might extend the period of time for discharge planning to six months or longer and provide more information related to financial planning and job training.
Women veterans reported a lack of awareness of resources and services that are there to assist them with transitioning back into civilian life. The majority of them did not participate in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) because they did not get enough or any information about the program. Other women veterans reported that TAP was instituted after they had already left the military. Two veterans who participated in TAP said that military personnel gave them insufficient information, materials, and assistance in regards to obtaining a job.
Establishing better connections between the VA and the Department of Defense before a woman is discharged is clearly important. Some women who are eligible to receive treatment services for an injury they received while on active duty experience a lag time in receiving compensation for that injury, some that presents serious issues to their financial stability. Low staffing levels at times prevent the VA from attending all transitional de-briefings from the military.
If the VA used computerized records it might have the ability to facilitate the flow of service members from one system to another. The VA could develop a means for ongoing communications with women veterans such as a lifetime email account. One participant suggested the assignment of each veteran to a social worker who could serve as a resource.
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