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Homeless Female Vets Double In Population, Seek Employment Help

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Iraq war veteran and former Army Pvt. Margaret Ortiz, 27, waits to catch a bus to a meeting at the Vetrans Affairs hospital near the women's shelter where she lives in Long Beach, Calif., in 2009.
Iraq war veteran and former Army Pvt. Margaret Ortiz, 27, waits to catch a bus to a meeting at the Vetrans Affairs hospital near the women's shelter where she lives in Long Beach, Calif., in 2009.

The fact that many homeless female veterans are middle-aged, divorced, unemployed and single mothers is more than just research on paper for Jennifer John. It's the reality the 42-year-old homeless veteran has struggled with for six years.

John lives in a U.S. Vets-funded women's long-term living center in Long Beach, Calif., where she pays rent that's partially subsidized. She lives with her teenage daughter and has been homeless since 2006.

During that very window of time, the homeless female veteran population has more than doubled, a new study says.

Using "limited VA data," the Government Accountability Office report suggests that the number of homeless veteran women has risen from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,328 in 2010.

The study acknowledges the fact that the number of women veterans has doubled from 4 percent of all veterans in 1990 to 8 percent today.

The report states that the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has committed to ending homelessness among all veterans by 2015 and funds several programs to house homeless veterans, needs to take specific actions to improve housing.

"While the VA is taking steps--such as launching an outreach campaign--to end homelessness among all veterans, it does not have sufficient data about the population and needs of women veterans to plan effectively for increases in their numbers as servicemembers return from Iraq and Afghanistan," the report states.

The GAO suggests the VA collect more detailed data on homeless female veterans, improve transitional housing while they await government homes and tailor safety and security standards for homeless female veterans.

Officials from the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development “generally agreed” with the recommendations from the GAO, according to the report.

Veteran homeless counts, however, have never been an exact science. The Army Times points out that the data aren't representative because "no government agencies consistently track homelessness among female veterans, which raises questions about the VA's ability to help those women."

John, who is now pursuing a degree in social work, explains that some of the female vet-specific issues that create complications in readjusting back to life include having to leave children upon deploying, dealing with family trauma upon returning and recovering from military sexual abuse.

John says that in her opinion, the top way to fight homelessness among female vets is to provide help in finding a job. She hopes for a tailored program and suggested an increase in recruiters who can help her find long-term employment that best fits her skills.

"Focus on us not as a group but as an individual," John said. "Place us according to what we know -- not just at any old job. And whatever I'm lacking, help me get the training."

Barbara Summey Marshall, volunteer executive director of Steps N Stages' Jubilee House, a homeless transitional shelter in North Carolina, agrees job placement service is a key way to fight homelessness among female vets. She's seeking partnerships with veteran-owned businesses and agencies willing to provide on-the-job training.

"Women veterans are so high-functioning," Marshall said. "We're built to get things done."

While experts are still learning about the unique challenges female vets face and the reasons they become homeless, the VA is being proactive in tackling the issue, according to Marshall.

"I'd applied for a grant and gotten approved for permanent housing for homeless veteran women," she said. "The VA itself has been avant garde in terms of developing programs to do homeless outreach."

Marshall says as the number of homeless female veterans has grown, she's started to adjust the way her organization reaches out to help them. For example, she provides traveling support groups, bringing open ears to women instead of expecting them to come to her center.

Steps N Stages' veteran housing includes the Jubilee House as well another transitional home and a permanent housing complex. Veterans stay at the living center until they find an apartment or receive a voucher for government housing and must prove they're searching for a job by submitting a weekly report.

Volunteers make Jubilee what it is, Marshall says. The home relies on people who provide support such as pro-bono skill-based services and administrative help in placing veterans in housing. In addition, the majority of the volunteers are veterans themselves and are simply there to provide help.

Marshall said, "We need people who have a heart and can care."

Support the Jubilee House here or find ways to volunteer with the VA to fight female veteran homelessness.

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