Homelessness Hits Female Vets, TooOn Easter morning, I met a woman who has no home. She is forty-something, unemployed, evicted from her apartment and cannot move in with her parents because they live in a deed restricted community for seniors. The manager has threatened her with arrest if she stays with them, so she only stays over one night a week. The rest of the week, she stays at a shelter for battered women, even though she’s hardly battered. It is the only shelter available in my town for women.
She is not a veteran, but her situation parallels that facing our female veterans. There are not enough facilities for homeless women and their children. We all assume that there are shelters, but there really haven’t been enough of them, and they have always had a shortage of segregated spaces for women and children. Too many of them are frankly dangerous for women.
Though overall homelessness among veterans has declined by 12% to around 67,500 last year, the number of homeless female veterans has climbed from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,328 in 2010.
Homelessness is a problem that is always with us, it just gets forgotten for spells. It made headlines during the Reagan administration because of the policies that enlarged the problem. One of the consequences of block granting social program money to the states was a need by the states to find ways to cut their budgets. Too often, one of the ways was to close residential facilities for the mentally ill, try to use out-patient treatment centers. We ended up with a lot of mentally ill people sleeping on the streets. Economic downturns always lead to more homelessness, and this last one was particularly hard because it resulted in so many people losing their homes.
The Veterans Administration inspector general has issued a report on housing that received VA grants. It found bedrooms and bathrooms without locks, inadequate lighting and women housed in facilities approved only for men. Nine of the 26 facilities did not have proper safety precautions. One female veteran and her 18 month old son were put into a facility with a registered sex offender.
The problems for female veterans go beyond the lack of facilities for women. Many of these women suffered sexual assault in the service. They were not properly cared for in the service and that has carried over into a distrust of the Veterans Administration. Female veterans have a 12.4% unemployment rate, slightly higher than that for male veterans. Many are single mothers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is working on solutions to this problem. Their budget calls for $300 million in grants and technical assistance for community groups to help veterans remain in their homes or find other housing. The Department is working on ways to prevent homelessness among veterans, with a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 set by the President. There are grant programs for local community groups to work with veterans to acquire health care and aid with financial planning and job skills.
Pete Dougherty, executive director of the VA’s homeless veterans initiative office, explained, “Part of what bring people to homelessness is isolation…The more you can keep that internal support around, the better.” The support must begin, however, upon discharge, not when a veteran is on the brink of having her or his life collapse. Moving the process in closer is something the military has been trying to do recently with counseling and interventions before discharge. They are playing catch-up with the problem. These wars have been sending home more disabled veterans than ever before and more victims of PTSD. National Guard personnel who were guaranteed their jobs upon returning have been deployed so many times that there are no jobs for them to return to, the companies they worked for no longer exist, or they have suffered in some way that makes them incapable of returning to those jobs, or they have not been able to keep their skills current with their former jobs. Even our veterans benefits system is not as good as it was for my parents.
We have been engaged for the past eleven years in two guerilla wars, the worst kind of warfare. With an all-volunteer army and the National Guard, we have not had enough replacements for the men and women we have sent to these wars. Too many of these veterans were older than the men we used to send to war – men who joined the National Guard to avoid Vietnam ended up in Baghdad, leaving not just children but grandchildren behind, or as one of their wives put on a bumper sticker “One weekend a month, my ass!” These two wars have left us with a multitude of veterans’ problems just as parts of our government want to cut back on the services we need for our veterans. If not building one warship could provide housing and job training, mental and physical health services, the means to rejoin civilian life for our veterans, that is what we should choose to do, that would be the morally correct choice.