No Longer Invisible: Women Veterans and Homelessness after Military Service

04/27/2017 02:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2017

Women veterans are the fastest-growing demographic of homeless veterans in America today. Far from being a well-understood phenomenon, most people would be hard-pressed to even include women veterans in the overall picture of veteran homelessness — or recognize their unique risk factors and survival strategies. There’s no solid sense of even how many women veterans are homeless, because the choices they make when they are experiencing unstable housing, such as sleeping on couches at friends’ and family’s homes until their welcome runs out, leaves them generally out of the federal count of and excluded from public notice or the resources that they and often their dependent children with them need. The recent six-part series in the Huffington Post aims to change that, by addressing their invisibility directly.

We also firmly believe in “changing the narrative” about who becomes homeless, and moving it away from a subject of pity and concern to one of empathy with the survivors, who are remarkable women with important stories to tell. If our only response is sympathy, we won’t actually succeed in making enough of a difference here. These women served alongside their brothers, and when they come home, they have their own integration issues, challenges and successes. They have their own stories, and these are worth hearing and affirming. In the series, we get to meet some of these remarkable women veterans and ideally realize just how common — not exotic — a stumble off the path into homelessness can be. There are many ways to get there, including the aftermath of the all-too-prevalent military sexual trauma (MST), and it doesn’t have to be chronic, long-term mental health issues or substance use and abuse that creates the problem. In fact, there’s a risk that if we consider homeless women veterans to be outliers, we will miss the awareness of just how common an experience this is for too many women veterans, not just once but multiple times over the course of their post-military lives.

Women veterans who experience homelessness are black, white, Hispanic, Native American, and every other race and ethnicity. They have served proudly in every branch of the U.S. military, on active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard — and in the national guard and reserves. They are older, younger, and every age in between. They served in every era where women have served. They live in every part of the country, and increasingly they live in rural areas even further away from what few services exist to meet their needs. They have served as enlisted and officers. They have served for less than a complete term of enlistment, and they have spent 20-30 years in the military, retiring with a pension but still unable to make ends meet because of catastrophic challenges that bumped them off the path into homelessness.

Most of all, they are nothing like their male veteran counterparts in how and why they experience homelessness — so in intervening effectively and providing much-needed services, the “old model” of who homeless veterans are needs to be tossed out and replaced with a much more inclusive model that addresses women veterans as unique. There are more than 2 million women veterans alive today in the U.S., and a portion of them will need our greater awareness of the very normality of their struggle with unstable housing, and the creation and delivery of resources that actually meet their needs, starting with trauma-informed outreach and housing options. VA, HUD, the Department of Labor all track aspects of women veteran homelessness and provide resources that relate. More attention and a larger, more effective safety net is needed. My sense after spending two years on various aspects of this project is that women veterans will avail themselves of the assist where they can, and not rely on it indefinitely. They are strong, resourceful, capable individuals who want to find a way to succeed, despite occasionally quite difficult obstacles. They deserve our attention, interest and creative problem-solving skills to help them when they need it with their re-integration issues that are different from, but just as important as, what male veterans experience after military service. Sadly, women veterans are frequently left out of the picture, intentionally or otherwise. One woman veteran in the series described it as “always being an afterthought,” whenever veterans issues are discussed. We have the power to change that narrative, by intentionally including women veterans in the picture — on this issue or any other.

But back to the series

If you’ve been following the comprehensive, in-depth series for the Huffington Post on female veteran homelessness, that poorly understood and dramatically under-researched phenomenon that affects too many women veterans at one time or another after military service, you might want to have all the resources it shared, or even the series itself, curated into one single spot for easy reference. That’s the point of this offering, here. The articles published in the series, in order, are:

Taken together, this material should provide a very compelling picture of who homeless women veterans are in America today, how they become homeless, and how we can bring them back “into the picture.” The material weaves together research, insights, and the lived experiences of many women veterans who have been homeless, and have frequently become advocates for other women veterans.

But wait, there’s more

Additional elements of the project include:

  • A brand-new website of state-specific housing resources to help women veterans avert homelessness. The website also allows for crowd-sourcing of resources. Know about a housing program in your state that is geared towards homeless women veterans and/or homeless women veterans with children? Most aren’t, and the ones that are sadly seem to go in and out of business regularly. If you do know of one in your area, the website allows you to suggest and/or recommend it, to be added to the listings. (Website designed and built by WordPress superstar Kori Ashton and her indefatigable staff of tech-savvy creatives at WebTegrity.)
  • A data visualization showing the comments of 400 women veterans from every service branch, era, geographical area of the U.S., etc. about what their experiences of unstable housing and homelessness were like (with marvelous assistance from senior data artist Jenny Richards at Tableau Public);
  • An interactive timeline, using Knight Foundation tools, to convey “how we got to this point;”
  • A great “map” for women veterans out of homelessness, conceived like a board game — since so many women veterans wait very late to avert homelessness, and find the “system” of finding resources very demoralizing or overwhelming. (Illustration by the irrepressible, talented Kate Hayward of Sticky Knowledge.)

And additional data visualizations on:

  • The extent of VA “Grant and Per Diem” programs available for women and/or women with children (a broader category than women veterans, but into which they fit), mapped against the population of women veterans, state by state in the U.S., showing how very few resources are actually available, as the population of women veterans continues to climb. (To be clear, the VA’s Grant and Per Diem program is only one of several housing programs they have that addresses veteran homelessness, but it’s the only one we’ve found where federal figures from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) are available to show these resources on a state-by-state basis. Those numbers also badly need updating. Hello, GAO :-). But there’s no sense that in the meantime that the number of programs has actually gone up.)

History of the project

The project as a whole started simply — with a policy paper, first semester in graduate school, exploring whether there were any gender differences in homeless veterans. The answer quickly became obvious as a resounding “yes,” which morphed into a fuller exploration into what those differences are.

That interest became an Op-Ed, published in the Texas Tribune on Veterans Day in 2014, initially drawing public attention to this topic, via journalism. (You’ll notice a now very-familiar stock image associated with this project.)

Several months later, it was time for communities nationwide to do their semi-annual “count” of homeless, including establishing veteran numbers, and I thought about volunteering — until I realized that based on my literature review and everything I’d learned until that point about how women veterans accommodated themselves during periods of unstable housing that there was almost no way to encounter women veterans who were homeless during the count. They just weren’t going to be found, for the most part, sleeping outside, staying under bridges, even sleeping in shelters. Because of their trauma histories, because of the fact they often had dependent children with them — these simply weren’t going to work, in the main, as ways to encounter women veterans who were homeless in order to get them counted, a crucial element for establishing funding and resource allocation. But we know they’re out there, so the question became, how to actually find them? How to bring them IN to the picture, since they ordinarily wouldn’t be seen otherwise?

The conversation started by my just putting the question out there on social media, in a specific Facebook forum well-attended by women veterans who often had experienced military sexual trauma. The original question is here, from early January 2015. Within 24 hours it had more than 400 comments from women veterans, all of whom wanted to weigh in with that they’d gone through, what their stories were, what they thought was important to know about the problem.

The lightbulb moment then became, create a brief, online, mainly multiple choice survey — easy breezy --- that could be used to reach back into the female veteran population, asking women veterans of every era, did you experience any periods of unstable housing after you left the military? And if so, what choices did you make — where did you sleep — how long did this go on for, etc. (As I’ve written elsewhere in the series, research into women veterans and homelessness had lagged enormously, so there was little known or understood even in the research literature, and too much reliance on small groups who shared similar issues to be very valuable long-term as information sources).

Women veterans jumped in to help — from proposing hypotheses about what would be found to suggesting language and choices in the survey itself, to getting it distributed to other women veterans and advocates all over the U.S. Suddenly, responses started pouring in. It was like this population was somehow literally waiting to be asked. By the time the survey responses were collected, scrubbed and the data analyzed — in conjunction with a longtime sociologist and research professor who gladly offered his expertise — 400 women veterans from every era, every branch of service, every race and ethnicity, every part of the country — well-matched against much larger datasets of veterans — had made their voices heard on the subject.

The survey(s)

While that material (Survey I, 2015) is being readied for publication in a research journal, a larger and more comprehensive survey (Survey II, 2017) was being developed and submitted for institutional review board approval, benefiting from the experience of the prior, pilot survey and an additional two years of comprehensive literature review and deep reporting on the topic with subject matter experts. The results of the first survey were also being presented at academic and veterans advocacy conferences, along with a broader sense of what the applications are for the women veterans community when it comes to intervention and providing appropriate resources.

Women veterans have been part and parcel of this work from the beginning, sharing their expertise and knowledge and hard work making sure that everyone who wanted to participate in the survey got a chance to. Other than the IWMF grant, which paid for expenses on the reporting side of the project, and the development of the website, this two year endeavor has been uncompensated and not for academic credit. It has purely been a passion to get to the root of understanding this issue and be able to change the narrative on how it’s described and discussed, going forward.

While the current survey stays open -- if you’re a woman veteran — or a currently serving female reservist — or if you served in the U.S. military as a woman — you are welcome to take and share this brief, Institutional Review Board-approved survey on housing issues after military service while it stays open. Currently, more than 2,300 women veterans have responded to the survey.

Additional resources

Because the published material asserts the connection between military sexual trauma and female veteran homelessness, you might want to learn more about military sexual trauma (MST), the wording for a spectrum of injuries received while serving that range from sexual harassment through rape. MST is not itself a diagnosis, but it leads to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a diagnosis. You can learn more about MST in multiple ways. Here are some of the most recommended.

A trio of documentaries were produced that covered MST from multiple angles. Taken together, they represent three great ways to understand the topic more fully — but, given the difficult nature of the material, take a break between them if you choose to watch all three.

Additionally:

  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a short video on its site, above (also on YouTube, here) about Military Sexual Trauma (MST) to educate veterans and inform them of the resources available.
  • After being featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary film about MST, “The Invisible War,” longtime advocate Susan Avila-Smith created a series of three- to five-minute videos on various aspects of MST injury, resolution and the claims process for veterans and advocates. Those videos are available on her MSTResources channel on YouTube.

There are also some ancillary items associated with this project, and more will be added as they become available:

  • A forthcoming public radio podcast about female veteran homeless as part of a series on discrimination. The podcast, by a host with a background in public radio, will be released later this Spring/early Summer. We will keep you posted as to when.
  • There’s even a set of memes based on women veterans’ actual comments about homelessness and how poorly they’re understood as a population, here on Facebook.

Big thanks go to:

First and foremost, the International Women’s Media Foundation, which supported this project through its many moving parts and deserves the biggest thanks for making it possible. The author was supported under an inaugural Howard G. Buffett grant from the IWMF, and the reporting and the website took place under it. The social science research was performed independently, but meshes well with the reporting to “cover” the topic from both sides: blending human stories of women veterans who have experienced homelessness with original research that can serve to help close the knowledge gap on this deserving and vulnerable population. If we succeed in moving the needle at all on this topic, it will be because of IWMF’s visionary investment in underwriting the focus on this topic. Thank you.

“Statistics are just human beings, with the tears wiped off.” — Paul Brodeur.

Acknowledgments, shout-outs, kudos and other well-deserved props

It takes a village, literally, to get a project this large and comprehensive done. The thank you’s will reverberate for a long time afterward. They may need to be a separate article entirely. But in the meantime, kudos to some key players, starting with the International Women’s Media Foundation, huge thanks for sponsoring the project under a Howard G. Buffett inaugural grant that made this reporting possible.

The rest of the village:

  • Rosalie Ambrosino, Ph.D., social work professor at the University of Texas-Austin for nudging me in the direction of this topic, when I was torn whether it would be the right one to cover from a policy perspective. It was.
  • Richard Harris, Ph.D., sociologist and social work/demography professor at the University of Texas San Antonio for being an able instructor in all things statistical and a fantastic resource for understanding that any question you have about the data has an answer that can be elicited from the data.
  • Journalist Kira Zalan for reminding me how crucial it was to find “the right” data visualization specialist to work with, to communicate what I wanted to show about the data. I persevered, and connected with the fabulous Jenny Richards at Tableau Public, and it was a great collaboration. You can see the results of our labors here.
  • New York Times best-selling author and investigative journalist par excellence Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, who backed my initial application to IWMF and encouraged me to go it alone, not as part of a team, because it was “my project.” A thousand thanks — your advice was right-on, and I was able to build a great team of collaborators and subject matter experts to add value to it anyway.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) colleague Connie Schultz for recommending another Pulitzer Prize winner, photographer Scott Shaw, to take photos for the project.
  • WordPress superstar Kori Ashton and her indefatigable team at WebTegrity for building just the right website from scratch to communicate the importance of making housing resources available for women veterans in precarious circumstances, and setting it up so it could accept crowd-sourcing of future recommendations and referrals. Yep, we made this real, thanks to your excellent help.
  • Innovative illustrator Kate Hayward of Sticky Knowledge, for working with me to design the board-game map that communicates “a way out” of female veteran homelessness, and does so in a captivating and engaging way, to take some of the mystery and the trepidation out of the process. And thanks as well to the ever-visionary warm can-do genius of Susan Price, whose Firecat Fridays led me to Kate’s expertise with compelling illustrations.
  • Sig Christenson, Martin Kuz and public media visionary/all-around great human being Julie Coan, all of whom understand military and veterans programming from the best of the heart and head connection, and who served as an informal kitchen cabinet throughout this project, urging me to take it in the directions where it could have the most impact, and contributing fabulous quotes like the Paul Brodeur one (thanks, Martin!) The whole project endeavors to show just that.
  • Subject matter experts on homelessness and women veterans, reached at VA and beyond, who contributed so much through their collegial encouragement and sometimes a direct nudge to where the great data or the next great source was located: Kayla Williams, Robin Keene, Ph.D., Thomas O’Toole, M.D., Libby Perl, Keith Harris, Ph.D., and Alison Hamilton, Ph.D., M.P.H.; as well as Frank Ochberg, M.D. on why MST isn’t its own diagnosis.
  • Kim Hopper, Ph.D., at Columbia University, for writing beautifully as well as authoritatively on the overall topic of homelessness, through his essays as well as in his seminal book, “Reckoning with Homelessness.” It was no surprise to learn he’d been influenced by one of the other excellent writers and thinkers on the subject, Elliot Liebow, author of “Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women,” which Rosalie Ambrosino, Ph.D., turned me on to in our first conversation about women veterans and homelessness.
  • The Texas Tribune, which published my precursor Op-Ed on the topic of women veterans as “The New Face of Veteran Homelessness,” Lindsey Wray at Military Times, which published “Homeless Female Vets are Focus of Multimedia Project,” about the IWMF award; Jane Harrison at Garnet News, which published “There’s a New Face of Veteran Homelessness, and She’s Female,” and ACEsTooHigh.com, the premier website about the enormously important Adverse Childhood Experiences public health study, published “The New Face of Veteran Homelessness” about the project. (Other publications are also in the works, and will be added as they appear.)
  • SurveyRock, for being responsive, thorough and excellent in both technology and customer service, providing an easy-to-use but robust online survey platform, perfect for distribution online and for data collection and export for research. Honestly, the days of using laborious platforms and kludgy interfaces need to be over — and when they are, it will be because of accessible, user-friendly platforms like this.

Veterans & Advocates:

Additional thanks for their very impressive and completely invaluable service goes to:

  • BriGette McCoy and Rosie Palfy, who used their subject matter expertise of homelessness as women veterans and advocates to formulate and test the original survey on women veterans of every era on experiences of unstable housing after military service. (That survey is now known as Survey I, 2015, to distinguish it from the revised and expanded Survey II, ongoing in 2017.)
  • Longtime women veterans advocate Diana Danis for suggesting the initial hypothesis to test, that women veterans would be found most often couch-surfing, staying in relationships characterized by domestic violence, and sleeping in their cars.
  • Prominent Military Sexual Trauma (”MST”) advocate Susan Avila-Smith for telling me what couch-surfing was years ago, and how prevalent it was among MST survivors, especially women.
  • Networker extraordinaire Mary Ellen Salzano, who tirelessly drew attention to the original survey of women veterans on social media, making sure that more voices could be heard and represented in the research. (Salzano is the founder of California’s Statewide Collaborative for Military and Their Families.)
  • Shad Meshad, Vietnam veteran and psychiatric social worker extraordinaire, co-founder of the Vet Centers, for opening up the offices of the National Veterans Foundation in Los Angeles, which he founded and leads for a one-of-a-kind women veteran and advocates confab and pizza night — and for always being a passionate and compassionate advocate for veterans of all kinds and all eras to have the opportunity to come home and heal.
  • Women veterans Army Reserve Maj. Jas Boothe, founder of Final Salute, Inc. and the Ms. Veteran America talent competition (Washington, DC); retired Air Force Master Sergeant Kristine Stanley (Los Angeles), Navy veteran Rebecca Fothergill-Murch (Seattle), along with the aforementioned-and-still-fabulous Army veteran BriGette McCoy (Atlanta), founder of Women Veteran Social Justice Network, who is one of the stars of the “Service” documentary mentioned earlier, and Marine veteran Rosie Palfy (Cleveland), former combat correspondent and ridiculously well-informed subject matter expert on veteran homelessness and VA housing programs.
  • Raymond Monsour Scurfield, DSW, LCSW, ACSW and Col. Kathy Platoni, Psy.D., my editors on “Healing War Trauma,” for being reliable cheerleaders on this and every other project, going all the way back to the early days of Healing Combat Trauma (2006), in the case of Dr. Scurfield.

Last but not least:

Presentations entitled “Coming Out of the Shadows: Women Veterans and Homelessness after Military Service” on the findings from the results of Survey I — into how women veterans experienced (or did not experience) housing instability after military service — were given during 2016 at the following academic and veterans advocacy conferences:

  • TexVets symposium, “Where Research Meets the Road,” in Round Rock, Texas;
  • The Southwest Social Sciences Association annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada;
  • The Fourth Annual Military Social Work Conference at the University of Texas at Austin; and
  • The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Texas annual conference in Arlington, Texas.

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