More women vets are homeless, but housing scarce

Published April 8, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Misha McLamb helped keep fighter jets flying during a military career that took her halfway around the world to the Persian Gulf. But back home, the Navy aircraft specialist is barely getting by after a series of blows that undid her settled life.

She was laid off from work last year and lost custody of her daughter. She's grappled with alcohol abuse, a carry-over from heavy-drinking Navy days. She spent nights in her car before a friend's boyfriend wrecked it, moving later to a homeless shelter where the insulin needles she needs for her diabetes were stolen.

She now lives in transitional housing for homeless veterans — except the government recently advised occupants to leave because of unsafe building conditions.

"I wasn't a loser," McLamb, 32, says. "Everybody who's homeless doesn't necessarily have to have something very mentally wrong with them. Some people just have bad circumstances with no resources."

Once primarily male veteran problems, homelessness and economic struggles are escalating among female veterans, whose numbers have grown during the past decade of U.S. wars while resources for them haven't kept up. The population of female veterans without permanent shelter has more than doubled in the last half-dozen years and may continue climbing now that the Iraq war has ended, sending women home with the same stresses as their male counterparts — plus some gender-specific ones that make them more susceptible to homelessness.

The problem, a hurdle to the Obama administration's stated goal of ending veterans' homelessness by 2015, is exacerbated by a shortage of temporary housing specifically designed to be safe and welcoming to women or mothers with children. The spike comes even as the overall homeless veteran population has gone down, dropping by nearly 12 percent to about 67,500 between January 2010 and January 2011, officials say.

"It can't get any worse," McLamb says matter-of-factly, "'cause I've already been through hell."

Veterans' homelessness, the subject of a March congressional hearing, has received fresh attention amid government reports documenting the numbers and identifying widespread flaws in buildings that shelter veterans.

"I think it's very clear that women veterans in particular lack the services they need," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview.

Female veterans make up about 8 percent of all veterans, or about 1.8 million, compared to just 4 percent in 1990. The number of homeless female veterans has more than doubled from 1,380 to 3,328 between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2010, according to a December U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found many with young children and nearly two-thirds between ages 40 and 59.

A new report from the VA inspector general examining veteran housing that receive VA grants found bedrooms and bathrooms without locks, poorly lit hallways and women housed in facilities approved for men only. Nearly a third of the 26 facilities reviewed didn't have adequate safety precautions. One female veteran and her 18-month-old son were placed in the same facility as a male veteran who was a registered sex offender.

Female service members, who in wars with increasingly blurred front lines return with post-traumatic stress disorder, face unique challenges, advocates say. Many have suffered sexual assault and remain too traumatized to share common space with men. Many are single mothers struggling to find housing for themselves and their children. They're also more likely to be jobless: Unemployment for female veterans who've served since September 2001 was 12.4 percent last year, slightly higher than for their male counterparts.

Michele Panucci, a psychologist who treats women with military sexual trauma at a women-only VA clinic in Nashville, said traumatic experiences in the military can be a barrier to turn to the VA for help.

"If it was authority that you don't like because of what happened to you in the military, you can then associate that with the VA or other helpful authorities," she said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's making progress.

The proposed VA budget calls for, among other things, $300 million for grants and technical assistance to community nonprofits to help veterans stay in their home or find alternate housing. The department is increasingly focused on preventing veterans from becoming homeless and helping families stay together when possible, said Pete Dougherty, executive director of the VA's homeless veterans initiative office.

One example is a support grant program for low-income veterans through which nonprofits and cooperatives provide health care services and financial planning, among other aid.

"Part of what brings people to homelessness is isolation ... The more you can keep that internal support around, the better," he said.

Chenae Perkins, who at 23 is the youngest woman in a transitional home for female veterans in Nashville, bears familiar hallmarks of homelessness.

At 19, she deployed with her National Guard unit to Iraq, where she said she was sexually assaulted — she never reported it — endured an unnerving barrage of rocket attacks and witnessed gruesome injuries while working at a military hospital. She struggled to find steady jobs after returning from her 14-month deployment.

"You go from making a certain amount of money while overseas and then coming back and living from paycheck to paycheck," she said. "It felt kind of demeaning."

After substance abuse led to legal troubles, she was referred to a veterans service center in Nashville, which runs the women's transitional house. She's found women who understand her.

"When I hear their stories, it relates to me, right on point. Their tempers and attitudes. How they changed from bubbly back then to how you are now. Everyone is irritable," Perkins said.

The system was "built around a guy soldier," and female sexual trauma victims require extra care, said Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and president and CEO of Grace After Fire, a female veterans' advocacy organization.

"You think she's going to go to a facility with 46 other guys sleeping next door to her? No, she's not. She's simply not going to re-enter the environment if that is her issue," Olson said.

The VA accommodates homeless veterans through a few initiatives.

One program operated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides housing vouchers for veterans is particularly popular among women and has housed tens of thousands of veterans and their families. But the program is geared toward veterans who are most in need, and is generally limited to those requiring substance abuse, medical and mental health problems and other issues that need continuing attention.

Another program offers grant and per diem money to nonprofits and community organizations to house veterans. But current law doesn't allow the VA to reimburse providers for housing children, creating a financial disincentive to do so. The GAO report said more than 60 percent of the grant and per diem programs it surveyed that serve homeless women didn't house children.

In Nashville, about an hour south of a major Army installation, there are just seven transitional beds for homeless single women veterans.

"The new model is not in place around the country to serve women and children," said Dan Heim, the homeless veteran program manager in Nashville.

McLamb never expected to be homeless. She joined the Navy in 1998, where she helped ensure aircraft had the necessary components for launch, and deployed three times to the Middle East — including after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She left the military in 2005 to care for her daughter and after, she says, she was sexually assaulted at a Navy base in California. She never reported it.

She held various jobs in the following years, but the bottom fell out in January 2011, when she lost an administrative contracting position at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Unable to pay rent, and without reliable income, she lost custody of her 8-year-old daughter. She pingponged between a car, a homeless shelter and alcohol treatment before arriving in a nondescript brick building in Washington that offers transitional housing for homeless veterans participating in a work-therapy program.

She had been earning a minimum-wage stipend from a clerical job at a VA hospital, but she said that position has expired. Benefits under the post 9/11 GI Bill provide her with a housing allowance, but her shoddy credit makes it near impossible to find a place of her own.

She carries with her reminders of her life — past, present and future. A pink U.S. Navy hat. A resume touting accurate typing and excellent administrative skills. A photograph of her daughter, Simone, who lives in Georgia with her father but whose name will one day grace the name of a restaurant McLamb dreams of opening.

Sometimes she feels she shouldn't be entitled to special treatment.

But, she quickly added, "Then I jump back into the other mode and say, 'They owe me this because I risked my life for them and now I need somebody else's help, and I don't think that that's a bad thing to do, ask for help."


Hall reported from Nashville.


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See the GAO report's state-by-state breakdown of beds available for homeless female veterans:

By Salon Staff

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