Ginger Miller served in the U.S. Navy as a bosun’s mate, receiving a medical discharge for an in-service accident. Although her service skills didn’t readily transfer to civilian life, she never dreamed she’d end up homeless, living on the streets for three years with her 2-year-old son and husband, a former Marine suffering from PTSD who also could not find work.
This snapshot of just one woman, one family, isolated and alone, is emblematic of a persistent national tragedy that is largely preventable and completely unacceptable.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent “point in time” count of homeless veterans found roughly 50,000 on the night in January that it conducted its spot survey. Based on previous full-year estimates, we can safely conclude that there probably are more than 100,000 homeless veterans across America. Of these, an estimated 10,000 of them are female.
For female veterans, homelessness is an especially dire predicament. They are more likely to be divorced and single parents, sharing this extreme hardship with the most vulnerable in our society — young children. And the majority of VA homeless programs lack congressional authority to provide services to spouses and children of veterans.
We must end this situation. To get these women back on the road to recovery and permanent housing requires the collaboration of diverse organizations, individuals, talents and resources in ways we’ve not been able to pull off yet. That includes working together to better identify risk factors for homelessness as women transition out of uniform and into the community.
How can it be in America that these intelligent, strong and resourceful women, so honored and respected while in uniform, end up struggling when they return to civilian life? What obstacles prevent them from gaining employment, obtaining adequate housing and becoming productive members within their local communities — just as they had been before entering the military? These are tough, but extremely important questions that need to be answered if we are to permanently resolve this crisis facing thousands of our female veterans.
Over the last several years, service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan swelled the ranks of the homeless. The nation has made some progress in addressing the issue among all veterans. The military, Veterans Affairs, healthcare organizations, veterans-service and nonprofit organizations have stepped up programs, access, treatment and research. Higher education institutions, such as USC, are conducting much-needed research on methods to identify people with high-risk factors for homelessness before they take off their uniform so they can be followed as they transition to the civilian world.
But although the number of homeless veterans is dropping, we are still failing female veterans. This is partly because female vets’ situations are often more complex than those of their male counterparts.
Women vets generally have fewer job opportunities and are paid less than men. Moreover, there hasn’t been a specific initiative to hire homeless vets generally, let alone women. The scarcity of affordable housing is especially problematic for women, as they are three times more likely than men to be raising children alone. And a life on the streets, which exacerbates problems of mental illness or substance abuse for anyone, also makes female veterans more likely to be vulnerable to sexual predators.
Ginger Miller is among the lucky few who overcame the odds. She enrolled in community college on the GI Bill, worked three jobs, eventually earned a master’s degree and started Women Veterans Interactive, a nonprofit that assists homeless and formerly homeless female veterans in rebuilding their lives.
But we still too often see homeless female veterans using cardboard for a bed, taking shelter under scaffolding, wearing rags in place of the uniform they once wore with pride. As a nation, as individuals, as organizations with specific competencies and connections, we have a responsibility to protect the women who once protected us. We must work together to create services and networks to prevent all our veterans, but especially the women, from spiraling into the abyss.
As Miller put it, “We have to give homeless female veterans and those at risk of becoming so the same respect as when they were on active duty. They are the same people. Get to know us. Give us a seat at the table. Help us ensure that the words ‘homeless’ and ‘veteran’ are no longer found in the same sentence.”
Darlene Curley is the executive director of the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare. Retired Brig. Gen. William T. Bester is the senior advisor to the Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program.
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