She once wore Army-issue green, then earned the rank of E-3 seaman in the U.S. Navy.
But when Serwa Scorza left the uniform, insignia and base behind for civilian life, she fell out of step and lost her footing. By the time she moved to Los Angeles, Scorza's marriage had dissolved and she struggled to balance work, school and single motherhood. Homelessness came next.
"For the longest time, I couldn't get stable," Scorza, 36, said one recent day.
Then a male veteran told Scorza something she didn't know about herself: that she, too, was a veteran. As it turns out, servicewomen seldom may be afraid to seek services from the Veterans Administration when they need it.
"Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans," said Michelle Wilde, chief of community care at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
"They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war," Wilde added.
Wilde's department was the first in the nation to organize an outreach team specifically to find and help homeless women veterans, whether they served tours overseas or stayed stateside, in times of war or in peace.
The team formed right on time, especially in Los Angeles County, when the number of homeless women veterans rose 51 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. That meant there were nearly 1,000 homeless women veterans living in cars, converted garages, and elsewhere across the region.
"Our women are very important," Wilde said. "It has been a growing population and we have had to work really hard to meet them because they have different needs."
With some federal funds from the Obama administration's "Opening Doors" initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wilde's a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.
This year, the HUD-VASH program received $75 million in federal funding to continue to offer rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.
In all, 58,140 vouchers have been awarded since 2008 and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are in homes of their own across the country because of HUD-VASH, federal officials have said.
"These HUD-VASH vouchers are a vital tool in our effort to provide these brave men and women with the earned care and benefits that help them live productive, meaningful lives," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in a statement in August. "So long as a single veteran lives on our streets, we have work to do. But with the continued support of President Obama, Congress and our community partners, we will end homelessness among veterans."
In Los Angeles, those funds have helped the outreach teams such as those overseen by Wilde continue to operate. The team is made up of a social worker, a nurse practitioner, a formerly homeless veteran, and a psychiatrist. The team scour the neighborhoods in areas most known for attracting tourists, but also the homeless: Venice, Santa Monica and Hollywood. Some are referred to Naomi House, which provides supporting housing for women with special needs. Others find substance abuse treatment help and housing through New Directions for Women in Mar Vista or permanent homes through L.A. Family Housing in the San Fernando Valley.
Like men, women veterans also may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, some because of sexual assault. They may return home and find that family support has vanished. Or they may have returned to jobs that no exist.
But the outreach team's efforts have helped. Of the 3,000 homeless veterans placed in homes, 10 percent were women. And the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles County also has shown an overall drop, from 8,131 in 2011 to 6,248 this year according to the latest figures. Among women, the stats have fallen from 909 in 2011, to 352 this year.
Who is a vet?
Yet despite the success of the program, the work remains challenging, Wilde said, because of societal stereotypes of who is and who isn't a veteran.
"We've been trying to get the message out that there that there are exits out of homelessness," she said of reaching women veterans. "Most people don't of think women or of families when they think of veterans."
And there's a shortage of programs tailored to the needs of female veterans, Wilde added.
"We still don't have enough providers that specifically work with that population," Wilde said. "We are looking for new providers and new programs to serve our women. The same problems that men have, women have, but women have their own unique problems."
Scorza, who spent seven years in the military beginning in 1996 as a soldier in the Army then a dental assistant in the Navy, said she is grateful for the assistance she received through the VA. She has secured permanent housing for herself and her son, Elijah, who is 12. She has earned a nursing degree from Mount Saint Mary's College. She is eager to get back to helping people, she said.
She said she understands why women vets may not turn to the VA for services. But she would encourage them to try.
"Some female veterans may avoid or decline the help of the VA depending on what they experienced during the time they served," Scorza said. "The fact is, the military is male-dominated and therefore there are more male veterans than female veterans. Sometimes women vets may respond to that alone and not see the importance of seeking assistance. But, the VA is improving how they interact with women veterans and there are a lot of resources in place that may benefit those who can get over their initial avoidance.
After being homeless for a couple of years, just having a place to call home, she said, put her back in step with her goals.
"Right now my life is a lot more stable than it had been. Having a place to call home is important. This stability also allowed me to complete my education. At this point, I feel like I have a more concrete foundation and a positive perception of my family's' future. It all started with a basic need being met."
Veterans who have trouble with housing or any other issues may call 1-877-424-3838. Also the CalVet "Reintegration Form" that any veteran can fill out to connect them with their benefits and services -- no matter when they served, can go to www.calvet.ca.gov. ___