Female Veterans: With Increased Risk, Specific Needs to Overcome Homelessness

The recent military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen more women than ever before on the front lines. Compared to the 41,000 women deployed in the Gulf War, roughly 200,000 women have served or are serving in these conflicts. The number of women going into combat in direct roles is increasing, which means that within the next few years we can expect a greater number of female Veterans transitioning back to civilian life. Unfortunately, we are also beginning to see an increase of female Veterans experiencing homelessness upon their return.

As more women leave the military in the next few years– many with young children and some 300,000 currently deployed who are single mothers –it is important for programs serving Veterans to adapt to meet the needs of these women to ensure they do not become homeless.

A female Veteran is four times more likely as her civilian counterpart to experience homelessness. Why is this case? What can service providers do to ensure that female Veterans achieve stability in housing, health, and employment? USICH spoke with Risa Greendlinger, Executive Director of the Work First Foundation and former Director of Veterans Issues at the National Center on Family Homelessness, an expert on women Veterans, the need for trauma-informed care, and employment interventions for this population.  She helped create the Department of Labor’s Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Service Providers.  USICH also spoke with Larkin Harris, National Center on Family Homelessness Project Director for the McCormick Foundation’s Chicagoland Women Veterans Employment Study, a female Navy Veteran who was medically discharged after suffering an injury during training.  She has never experienced homelessness herself, but her experience navigating the VA health care and benefit system and her challenges in finding employment after service illustrates the difficulties female Veterans face when they return to civilian life.

USICH: What are some experiences that are unique to women Veterans, and how do these experiences contribute to the higher risk of homelessness?

Ms. Greendlinger: Female Veterans can find themselves unable to attach to the labor market after their service for a number of reasons, which can lead to homelessness. Notably, there is a disproportionate number of female Veterans experiencing military sexual trauma (MST).  One in five female Veterans reported experiencing some form as opposed to one in twenty male Veterans.  As documented by Service Women Advocacy Network (SWAN) MST is believed to be vastly underreported.

When a woman has experienced MST, there are a number of symptoms – physical, emotional, and mental – that make it difficult to gain stability in housing, health and employment.  We found while talking to women Veterans that while MST is an all too common experience, many women have also experienced trauma before entering the military.  While not all female Veterans experienced either of these things, trauma history can become a substantial barrier to stability for those who have.  Exposure to trauma in any form impacts all aspects of daily functioning and long-term outcomes.  For service providers, recognizing a woman’s past is important in understanding how to assist her in building her futures.

Ms. Harris:  Even getting healthcare for service related injuries can be a daunting experience in a culture where women sometimes don’t feel safe.  Support networks for women, women mentors, and clinics geared toward women’s health are all ways to improve a woman’s sense of safety in a benefit system that is often dominated by men.  The VA is expanding access to some of the resources and they are very important. 

USICH: What can service providers do to help meet the needs of women Veterans specifically, both those who are experiencing homelessness, those at risk, and those looking for employment after their service?

Ms. Greendlinger: There are four main categories of practices that can be very helpful to serving women Veterans better.

Military Cultural Intelligence training: I prefer this term to “cultural competence” but the concept is the same: a provider needs to understand the ways the military shapes a woman’s outlook and demeanor that is different than what civilian culture expects.  The individual-focus and achievement embedded in military training may make it less likely that women will ask for help in the first place.  Please go here and see pages 47 & 48 for a variety of free and fee based Military Cultural Competency training resources and guides to military acronym lists.  

Peer to peer support groups for women: these groups help female Veterans with housing, health, and job prospects.  There are also some larger companies or company collectives that have affinity groups for women Veterans in their workforce.  Female Veteran mentors also provide great support for recently returned Veterans in everything from navigating the benefit system to help finding employment and basic life networking.

Women Veteran specific organizations and support systems are a great way to help women (especially those who’ve experienced MST): female specific spaces help women find stability in a safe environment.  For those who have experienced trauma in their career, they will feel safer to talk about their experiences and begin to heal in a gender-specific environment.

Embedding trauma informed care principles: promoting safety in the provider environment, supporting consumer control and autonomy, and understanding trauma and its impact will enable both the service providers and others to assist female Veterans.  In many organizations from non-profits to government programs, trauma informed care is a successful intervention.  See DOL’s Trauma Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: a Guide for Service Providers for great strategies for homeless providers working with this population.

Work First with Support to keep a holistic picture of the Veteran in mind: many women Veterans are also single moms and often they need as much help with achieving stability for their kids with child care and schooling as they need help finding employment for themselves and housing for their family.  

Ms Harris: To me one of the most difficult pieces was just figuring out how to get all my benefits set up.  With help I was able to navigate the complexity, but you need to have patience.  In order to begin getting VA health care you have to have your other compensation and pension benefits squared away, which is a long process that varies between states and can take months.  It is helpful to ask a lot of questions to figure out how long it will take to start receiving benefits as well as how long you can expect to receive compensation once the benefits begin and to get guidance about the steps needed to get other benefits.  The only way I was able to finally get my paperwork at the Veterans Health Administration completely in order was by working with a service provider at a Veterans nonprofit organization who sat down with me and walked me through it step by step.  This is where service providers can step in: connecting women Veterans with a mentor or specialist who will be able to help them navigate this complicated system.

Service providers can also make a point to provide a space where women feel like they’re being cared for, where they feel safe.  Although it’s not a requirement, having another female Veteran there to help with job searches, housing assistance, or just being able to talk is helpful.

USICH: Employment is critical to financial stability.  What are some challenges in employment and some practices that work?

Ms Harris: Thankfully when I left the military I was able to live with my parents, but I had to find a job. Within the first two weeks I sent out nearly 100 resumes with no call back.  The only job I was able to get was through a friend at a gym overlooking the gym floor, helping people out, etc – it was a little over minimum wage.  I kept thinking, ‘I have so much experience doing other administrative things and I’m making $9.25 an hour? The least I could do was something I was qualified to do instead of picking up plates off the gym floor.’  It was extremely frustrating. I decided to go back to school (for both my second bachelors and my masters) but I’ve mostly been unemployed throughout.  I was able to get connected to the work I’m doing now at the National Center on Family Homelessness through a personal connection, but it can be very challenging to find work after military service even for someone like me who had a job history.

Ms Greendlinger: For most individuals in the military, and women in particular, each person has a specialized occupation that may not be directly transferrable to the civilian sector.  Many women Veterans may have a harder time mapping their specialized occupation skills into the civilian sector because they are specialized in occupations that are non-traditional for their gender, such as transportation or mechanic functions.  They also may not want to continue these occupations in the civilian service for a number of reasons.  Providers need to let the Veteran lead the conversation about their employment future instead of assuming they want to continue doing the same thing they did while they were in the military.

Providers working with women need to work together to pull together all the skills and qualities that make a Veteran a great job candidate: ability to work well alone or in a team, leadership of others, strong communication skills for those above and below you on a hierarchy, time management, etc. One of the first steps to getting a woman Veteran a job is working together with her to identify skills that translate from her time in service. This needs to be led by the individual and attuned to her goals and aspirations for the future – whether that means getting a job or going back to school.

The Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program is making strides to make the process easier, and service providers can assist further for those with higher barriers to stability. The White House’s Joining Forces campaign is expanding to cover Veterans’ employment.  For women Veterans who come home and have to go back to wearing many more hats – mother, wife, caretaker – the process is more complicated than simply finding a job. Working holistically with this population which is experiencing homelessness, at-risk of homelessness, or those who struggle to find employment is one of the first steps to truly assist these individuals. Women should be able to get the same benefit of military service that men do, and if we listen we can help women Veterans get recognition for their training, teamwork, service commitment and leadership abilities.