More Female Veterans are Winding Up Homeless

For younger veterans, it is even more pronounced: One out of every 10 homeless vets under the age of 45 is now a woman, the statistics show.

And unlike their male counterparts, many have the added burden of being single parents.

“Some of the first homeless vets that walked into our office were single moms,’’ said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “When people think of homeless vets, they don’t think of a Hispanic mother and her kids. The new generation of veterans is made up of far more women.’’

Overall, female veterans are now between two and four times more likely to end up homeless than their civilian counterparts, according to the VA, most as a result of the same factors that contribute to homelessness among male veterans: mental trauma related to their military service and difficulty transitioning into the civilian economy.

But while veterans’ services have been successfully reaching out to male veterans through shelters and intervention programs, women are more likely to fall through the cracks.

“While the overall numbers [of homeless vets] have been going down, the number of women veterans who are homeless is going up,’’ Peter Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a telephone interview.

The trend has alarmed top lawmakers and veterans groups, who fear that the federal government - which is already straining to care for new veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, and other physical ailments - is ill-prepared to deal with the special needs of female veterans who find themselves on the street.

Many of them are like Angela Peacock, a former Army sergeant who was diagnosed with PTSD when she returned from Iraq in 2004 and became addicted to pain-killers.

Later evicted from her apartment in Texas, she spent more than two years “couch-hopping’’ between friends and family before moving in as a squatter in an empty house in St. Louis.

“They could kick me out anytime they want,’’ Peacock said in an interview. “I have been clean for two and a half years and am working on getting my life back, but it doesn’t happen overnight.’’

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington, about 23 percent of the homeless population in the United States are veterans. Nearly half are from the Vietnam era and three-fourths experience some type of alcohol, drug, or mental heath problem.

Most of the homeless vets, who are estimated by the Veteran’s Administration to number at least 130,000 on any given night nationwide, are men older than 50.

With a new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan leaving the armed forces, however, the demographics are swiftly changing. And with more women serving on active duty - a full 15 percent of the military is now female - the share of female homeless veterans has grown from about 3 percent a decade ago to 5 percent, according to the VA.

Among younger veterans, meanwhile, the share of women is nearly double, making up 9 percent of homeless veterans under the age of 45.

“There are twice as many under 45 than above,’’ said Dougherty, who is also the executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal government’s efforts to combat homelessness.

In recent days, senior members of Congress have called for an expansion of some of the VA’s programs to ensure they are properly suited to meeting the needs of the growing female population.

“Women veterans and veterans with children often have different needs and require specialized services,’’ Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former Army officer, also believes more women-focused veterans services are needed.

“We need to adapt services for our veterans to reflect this shift and provide more gender-specific resources, such as housing and counseling to prevent female veterans from becoming homeless,’’ Reed said.

For example, Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq before founding the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group, said female veterans often face unique homelessness risk factors, including sexual assault while in the military and diminished earning potential in civilian life.

But he also believes that the culture of the VA is mostly geared toward meeting the needs of men.

“They are having a tough time evolving to meet the demands of women, who are at a higher risk for homelessness to begin with,’’ Rieckhoff said.

The Obama administration has taken some steps toward combating homelessness among all veterans, including allocating $75 million to public housing authorities in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam to provide permanent housing and dedicated case managers for an estimated 10,000 veterans.

“For a woman veteran in particular, this is a way for them to have a place to live and not have to ditch the child while they take care of other needs that they have,’’ said Dougherty.

But Murray, Reed, and others say far more needs to be done, especially for homeless veterans with children.

They have sponsored legislation that calls for $50 million in extra funding over the next five years to allow the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments to make special grants to homeless veterans with children, including for transitional housing.

The legislation would also allow the Labor Department to fund facilities that provide job training and child care for female veterans.

Bryan Bender can be reached at [email protected]

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