Our Homeless Female Veterans: All Too Often, a 'Double Betrayal of Trust'

In his foreword to the "2011 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress," released in November 2012, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan writes:

The report shows that our collective efforts to address homelessness are making a difference. Since 2010, the number of people in shelter decreased by nearly six percent, and the decline was felt by people who experience homelessness alone, by families with children, by our nation's veterans, and by people who experience chronic homelessness. (Emphasis mine.)

I had not read that report at the time, but I did read a brief Department of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report a month later -- in December 2012 -- which announced that homelessness among veterans had been reduced by approximately 7 percent between January 2011 and January 2012.

Having lamented the state of homelessness among our veterans only five months before that report, I was naturally buoyed by such news and quoted the VA report:

The 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, prepared by HUD, estimates there were 62,619 homeless Veterans on a single night in January in the United States, a 7.2 percent decline since 2011 and a 17.2 percent decline since 2009. The AHAR reports on the extent and nature of homelessness in America. Included in the report is the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which measures the number of homeless persons in the U.S. on a single night in January 2012, including the number of homeless veterans.

Had I read the November 2012 HUD report, I would not have been so upbeat about the VA announcement nor would I have taken the title, "Report Reveals Further Reduction in Veterans Homelessness," at face value.

You see, buried in page 52 of the November 2012 HUD report, under "Characteristics of All Sheltered Veterans: Gender and Age," is the following ominous statistic:

The percentage of women among sheltered veterans increased by 1.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2011 and by 2.3 percentage points since 2009. The higher risk of homelessness among female veterans was highlighted in past AHAR Veteran reports and appears to be confirmed by the 2011 estimates.

In addition, according to the report, while -- in 2011 -- 7.2 percent of veterans in the U.S. were women, 9.8 percent of the homeless veterans population were women.

In an excellent column Thursday at the New York Times, Patricia Leigh Brown highlights this disturbing trend:

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, up from 7.5 percent in 2009. In part it is a reflection of the changing nature of the American military, where women now constitute 14 percent of active-duty forces and 18 percent of the Army National Guard and the Reserves.

Regardless of the growing percentage of women in the military, this is an extremely troubling trend, especially when viewed alongside another growing problem, that of sexual assault on women in the military.

More tragically, some of the women who have been sexually assaulted while in the military are now the victims of another injustice: homelessness -- sometimes as a consequence of the assaults and trauma they endured while in service.

Again, Patricia Leigh Brown:

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. But a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists said, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brown focuses on one such sad story, representative of what has been called "a double betrayal of trust"* and one that is part of "the 53 percent of homeless female veterans who had experienced military sexual trauma."

It is the story of Tiffani Jackson, a female veteran who "In the caverns of her memory... recalls the job she held, fleetingly, after leaving the military, when she still wore stylish flats and blouses with butterfly collars and worked in a high-rise with a million-dollar view," -- a veteran who has now experienced it all: Rape while in the military and then, in "civilian life," loss of her job, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness and even prison.

But it is also the story of how female veterans face a complex "web of vulnerability," as the Times quotes Dr. Donna L. Washington, who has studied the ways the women become homeless, including poverty and military sexual trauma.

Some of the "threads" in the web, as described in Brown's column:

Female veterans are far more likely to be single parents than men are. Yet more than 60 percent of transitional housing programs receiving grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs did not accept children, or restricted their age and number, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.

The lack of jobs for female veterans is also contributing to homelessness.

Again, the "double betrayal of trust." Being sexually assaulted while serving their country which often sets off "a downward spiral for women into alcohol and substance abuse, depression and domestic violence," according to Lori S. Katz.*

Add to this "web of vulnerability" the fact that "Returning veterans face a Catch-22: Congress authorized the V.A. 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," according to Brown.

Hopefully, there is help on the way. According to the Times:

Pledging to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the government is pouring millions of dollars into permanent voucher programs, like HUD-Vash, for the most chronically homeless veterans. Thirteen percent of those receiving vouchers are women, nearly a third of them with children, Dr. Angell said.

A newer V.A. 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... A pilot project providing free drop-in child care is under way at three V.A. medical centers.

And, "Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, recently introduced legislation that would reimburse for child care in transitional housing for the first time."

Please read more about this "Double Betrayal of Trust" in "Honor Betrayed -- Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home" and watch the moving video of women who have just completed an intensive therapy program for veterans and who share their experiences of sexual trauma in the military, which has led to homelessness for some, here


* The Times: "For those hoping to better their lives, being sexually assaulted while serving their country is 'a double betrayal of trust,' said Lori S. Katz, director of the Women's Health Clinic at the V.A. Long Beach Healthcare System and co-founder of Renew, an innovative treatment program for female veterans with M.S.T."