11/11/2011 06:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

As America Honors Its Heroes, We Can Do More for Homeless Women Veterans

On this Veterans Day, as we take pause to remember the veterans who so bravely served our country it's imperative that we not overlook homeless women veterans and their families.

While women represented only 8 percent of all sheltered homeless veterans in 2010, that statistic masks the overall crisis. Female veterans are two to four times more likely to become homeless than the general female population. As of September 2010, women veterans represented 7.5 percent of the total U.S. veteran population, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expects a 6.7 percent increase in the number of women veterans by 2020. And as more women enlist, the number of homeless veterans is unfortunately expected to rise.

Women in the military are more likely than men to be single parents (11 percent and 4 percent, respectively) and to be from a racial or ethnic minority. Compared to male veterans, women also tend to be younger, are less likely to be employed, and more likely to have a major mental illness. And between 20 and 48 percent of female veterans have been the victims of military sexual trauma, which has been blamed for the fact that almost three-quarters of female veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. All of these characteristics are risk factors for homelessness.

Yet when the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness testified before the New York City Council Veterans and General Welfare Committees on Monday, Nov. 7, our organization was the first to address the specific needs of homeless women veterans and their families. This oversight is unfortunately all too common.

This invisibility of female veterans and families is evident in the paltry research and resources directed toward this population. Of the numerous homelessness programs that currently serve veterans nationwide, few have the facilities to provide adequate accommodation for women with children. The VA's Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group's report to Congress revealed that in 2010, child care was the highest unmet need among surveyed homeless veterans and service providers.

Looking Toward the Future

Positive steps have been made to address the needs of homeless veteran families at the national level. The Homeless Female Veterans and Homeless Veterans With Families Program funds organizations that provide employment services, case management, family counseling, and linkages to transitional housing and health services. The Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010 created a separate Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program that focuses on connecting women veterans and veterans with children to supportive services. This program includes child care, which is essential for female veterans who might not otherwise be able to access benefits and employment. However, because this is a relatively new program, outcomes are still uncertain.

I also applaud the recent Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, which awards grants to organizations to provide supported services to very low-income veteran families residing in or transitioning to permanent housing. But it is also too soon to tell the impact this program to have, and it is a troubling start that the program does not address families living in transitional housing or emergency shelter.

Here in New York City, there has been success in housing homeless single veterans. But the needs of families should be included in the plan to end veteran homelessness. The Department of Homeless Services should collect information on veteran status as part of its intake process for homeless families as well as for single adults.

With the return of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the city is expected to experience a surge in younger veterans, including families and women with children. Intensive services must be in place to address the unique needs of these families, both as prevention, and after they enter the shelter system. As the city works to improve its veteran services, the needs of families with children must not be ignored.