As the overall veteran homeless rate begins to drop, one number is continuing to rise: the number of homeless veterans who are female.
A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that since 2009, the number of homeless female veterans living in shelters has increased by more than 2 percent. Final Salute, a group that helps homeless female veterans, estimates that there are currently 55,000 homeless female veterans in the U.S.
For many women who end up homeless, a little more than half of them were victims of sexual assault, according to a recent study by Dr. Donna L. Washington of the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs office of Greater Los Angeles.
Caroline, a homeless veteran who didn’t want to give her last name, told Salon magazine she expected to spend her career working for the military, but after she was raped by two soldiers she considered friends, she couldn’t stay. Caroline ended up homeless, struggling with alcoholism.
Through all of this, she says she avoided going to the VA for help because of what the VA represented to her.
“It’s almost like coming back to your very rapist and saying help me. Even though they’re not the actual rapist, they represent them because that’s who they protected,” she told Salon.
Davida Barlow joined the Navy in 1994 and left two years later after divorcing her verbally abusive husband, who happened to also be in the Navy. Barlow told Stars and Stripes that while she has benefitted from getting help from the VA, many female veterans who are victims of sexual abuse are uncomfortable going to the VA.
“It’s really traumatic for these women to be around men,” Barlow said.
Sexual abuse survivors are also discouraged when U.S. politicians, such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), make light of rape and question whether the crackdown on sexual assault in the military is going too far.
“The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side,” Chambliss said while addressing top military officials at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Sen. Claire McCaskill responded to Chambliss’ comments, saying that the government’s concern about the high sexual assault rate isn’t about sex.
“This is about assaultive domination and violence,” she said. “ And as long as those two get mushed together, you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be at getting after the most insidious part of this, which is the predators in your ranks that are sullying the great name of our American military.”
One in 5 women at the VA were found to have “military sexual trauma,” which is the term the Pentagon uses to describe rape. A report from the VA found that females who suffer from sexual trauma are also more than 4 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder and 6 times more likely to have three or more mental health conditions.
Caroline eventually found a VA center where she felt comfortable attending an in-patient treatment program, but she still found herself homeless.
“They have all sorts of different transitional housing they can offer the male veterans…. and they didn’t have any place for me to go. So for me to get treatment and just be put out on the streets… it’s like you get treated for frostbite and they’re going to throw you back out in the snow,” she said. “And it actually was snowing. It was January, It was pretty cold.”
Part of the problem for female veterans is that it’s hard for them to find housing, especially if they have children. According to the Government Accountability Office, about 60 percent of homeless shelters either don’t accept children or have restrictions regarding the number or age of children.
A 2012 report from the VA found that compared to their male counterparts, a higher proportion of female veterans are diagnosed with mental health problems. Women are often diagnosed with PTSD, hypertension, depression, high cholesterol, low back pain, gynecological problems and diabetes.
While substance abuse and mental illness are contributing factors to female veterans’ homelessness, some female veterans attribute their situation to tough times.
“It’s harder for us to get a job, it’s harder for us to get an apartment, because we have less money coming in, and our money has to stretch a lot farther than the average single vet, with no children, and no responsibilities,” U.S. Navy veteran Javonni Harper told CNN.
Last summer, Harper and her two young children lived out of their car, she said.
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