Helping Female Veterans Find Stable Lives

USICH interviewed the Coordinator for the Boston-based Women Veterans Homelessness Program Lauren Dever about successes her program has had treating female Veterans experiencing homelessness.

The Women Veterans Homelessness Program is one of only two clinical programs in the country focused exclusively on female Veterans experiencing homelessness. They offer a combination of services including inpatient and outpatient care, mental health and physical health care, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and trauma-specific care, transitional housing, and robust outreach.

USICH: What is the process you use to find and reach out to female Veterans in need?

Lauren Dever: Outreach is about finding Veterans who need help. This can be a challenge because many women don’t self-identify as Veterans. Effective outreach requires close connections to community organizations and making sure we are asking the right questions (“Have you ever served in the military?” instead of “Are you a Veteran?”) and that we spread the word for peer-to-peer referrals. But outreach is also equally about outreach to programs, organizations, and other departments to find resources that are available. We are the linker so we need to provide outreach in both directions to the Veteran and to the resource and then we pull the two together to meet.

It is also important that the different caregivers coordinate with each other so the Veteran we are helping doesn’t have to meet with us all individually. For example, the various members of our physical and mental health teams meet regularly to discuss overlap of patient needs but we also meet with outside care providers to find resources and make sure health and mental health and life needs are understood by all involved in providing services to our female Veterans.

USICH: Can you describe what makes the needs of female Veterans unique from the needs of male Veterans?

Lauren Dever: There are three main points that come up for us very often that are unique to women:

  1. Female Veterans are far more likely than males to be raising a child alone. When we provide services to women we need to do a better job of also providing care options for her children. This is something that we have been working on in a couple of new programs. If a woman has to choose between getting the care and support she needs and being with her children, we aren’t giving her much of a choice.
  2. Military sexual trauma is far more common than any of us would like it to be and it is a major source of mental health and psychological issues for the women we treat. Military Sexual Trauma can create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder like symptoms as well as trust and relationship building issues, employability problems, an unwillingness to seek care, and more complex issues like substance abuse and self-harm.
  3. Women don’t self-identify as Veterans to the degree men do, so they are sometimes harder to find and can be harder to serve through traditional VA pipelines.

USICH: Do you have advice for other care providers who serve female Veterans experiencing or at-risk of homelessness?

Lauren Dever: 

  • Talk about the issue more. Women are a growing population among Veterans and just talking about it helps more people be aware throughout the community. In Massachusetts, the Women Veterans Network has been very helpful about spreading the word on this issue.
  • Educate your staff explicitly on the needs and roles of women Veterans. If staff don’t understand the pervasiveness and effects of trauma, military sexual trauma, combat trauma, and non-service related trauma, all of which are common in the women we treat, then you can’t expect your staff to respond effectively when working with a woman who has experienced trauma.
  • Perform outreach into the community. While there is work already being done together with VA outreach workers in some parts of the country, we as community organizations can come together with VAs and they with us to work more closely for women Veterans to connect them with all appropriate resources. As noted earlier, women Veterans are more likely to seek assistance from community organizations than the VA—but these women can benefit from services that only the VA offers. 
  • Collaborate: we hold screenings, panels, and facilitate discussions with female Veterans who have experienced homelessness, combat trauma, and/or Military Sexual Trauma, and with providers from the community, as well as our own staff and staff from other Veteran organizations in the community. These events have helped build awareness and connections about the issues that need to be addressed and how to change the way we reach and help our female Veterans.