By Barbara Poppe, USICH Executive Director
I recently participated in the National Summit on Women Veterans Homelessness in Chicago sponsored by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF). As summit organizers explained, “women represent an important and growing segment of the Veterans’ community, and the post-service challenges facing many of the nation’s 1.8 million female Veterans can be formidable.”
Participants included a representative group of program practitioners, advocates, researchers, policy experts from USICH, HHS, and VA, and female Veterans with firsthand experience of homelessness. We spent a day and a half together exploring what we know about homelessness among female Veterans and interventions that prevent and solve homelessness for this population. IVMF plans to publish a white paper, Recommendations on Prevention and Interventions to End Women Veteran Homelessness, which will be disseminated through federal, state and local networks.
What We Know
- 20,944 female Veterans were at-risk or homeless between October 2011 and September 2012. California, Texas, Florida, New York and Georgia account for 40 percent of these female Veterans (VSSC Homeless Services Cube).
- Of 141,000 Veterans nationwide who spent at least one night in a shelter in 2011, 9.8 percent were women.
- Female Veterans are up to four times more likely to experience homelessness than non-Veteran women.
- 39.7 percent of female and 3.3 percent of male homeless Veterans who receive services from the Veterans Health Administration experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and have increased odds of mental health diagnoses.
- 13 percent of Veterans served through the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program (SSVF) are women. Similarly, 13 percent of Veterans who moved into HUD-VASH units in 2012 were women.
- Female Veterans who experience homelessness are more likely than their male counterparts to be part of households that include minor children.
Generally, Summit participants recognized that female Veterans represent an underserved and less understood segment of the Veterans’ community and a growing sub-population of those at-risk of homelessness. Much remains unknown, however, about how women experience post-service reintegration into civilian life and how the female Veteran homelessness experience differs from other sub-populations. Furthermore, the shortage of access to emergency shelter for women and female-headed families in many communities may mask the extent of homelessness among female Veterans. We need further research and program evaluation in both of these areas.
Despite significant progress in recent years to close the gap, female Veterans are still less likely to access VA benefits and services than their male counterparts. While not completely understood, the reasons for this disparity are multifaceted. First, many female Veterans either are not aware of or do not think they are eligible for VA services or benefits. In fact, women are about 30 percent less likely to enroll in VHA than men. Second, the survivor instinct honed in the military may act as a barrier to female Veterans accessing services. Third, female Veterans may not feel like VA facilities are equipped to comprehensively address their needs. Health disparities – like female Veterans having 22 percent more diagnoses of mental health problems or facing greater risk for cardiovascular disease – may exacerbate this issue.Additionally, female Veterans report concerns about environmental factors in VA facilities that may prevent some women from feeling like they can receive dignity, respect, and security while seeking care. Fifth, some women may feel a sense of marginalization that extends from their military service due to the significantly greater number of men who serve than women. Finally, some female Veterans report difficulty keeping VA appointments due to conflicting child care obligations.
Another significant social and public health concern is that female Veterans who experience homelessness have high levels of exposure to trauma from before, during, or after their military service. In addition, it is likely that the needs of women who served in recent wars are different than women who served during earlier conflicts, as the former were more likely to participate in combat (check out Lioness to learn more). Examples of trauma female Veterans may encounter include PTSD, MST, and domestic violence. Such traumatization can be debilitating in isolation, but is heightened when compounded with the stress associated with experiencing homelessness.
Given all of the range of these experiences, it comes as no surprise that many female Veterans desire to continue the camaraderie among women that they experienced during their military service. Consequently, women-only peer support groups, mentors, and peer specialists can serve important social and recreational functions, as well as treatment and training supports. In addition, access to safe, stable housing is critical to preventing and solving homelessness among female Veterans. Programs like HUD-VASH and SSVF are working and should be expanded to ensure that every woman who has put on the uniform for her country never finds herself homeless.
Female Veterans are talented, strong, resilient and looking for a chance to continue their service to country, community and family as civilians. Federal organizations, homeless providers, and communities must work in collaboration to prevent violence against female Veterans and ensure that this group has access to supportive services and benefits they need and to which they are entitled at Veterans.
What Homeless Providers and Communities Can Do to Help
- Ask women experiencing homelessness the following questions (see USICH’s recent newsletter):
- Did you serve in the military?
- If yes, were you on active duty (not reserves) after 1980 for at least two years or did you serve in combat? (If on active duty prior to 1980, the two-year requirement does not apply.)
- If yes, did you have an honorable or general discharge?
- Refer female Veterans appropriately by connecting them with the closest VAfacility.
- Ensure your programs provide trauma-informed care (see DOLs guide).
- Recruit women with military backgrounds to volunteer and serve in leadership capacities at nonprofit organizations that serve women who experience homelessness.
- Partner with the VA and connect with the Women Veterans Program Manager at your local VA Medical Center.
- Adopt evidence-informed practices like Housing First, permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing, motivational interviewing, etc. (see USICH’s Solutions Database).
- Partner with local housing organizations and owners to identify affordable housing options for female Veterans.
- Connect with employment and entrepreneurship opportunities that target women and/or female Veterans.
V-WISE (IVMF’s entrepreneurship program for female Veterans)
National Call Center for Women Veterans (1-855-VA-WOMEN)