Every other year around this time, including this year, volunteers fan out across their communities on a single night, attempting to count the homeless. As part of that count, they also attempt to eyeball who’s a homeless veteran. Later, this count is put together with a tabulation of how many people pass through services geared to the homeless in a year, like shelters, to get a federal estimate of both how many homeless there are across America, and also how many veterans are homeless.
See any problems with this picture, like who it might leave out? That would be women veterans, the fastest growing demographic of homeless veterans, who are highly unlikely to appear lurking under a bridge or staying in shelters, because of their trauma histories and because they’re often single parents with dependent children in tow.
I had a conversation recently in one of my social work graduate classes with a military veteran who had just retired after 20 years of service in the Army. I’ll never forget his response, after I made a short presentation about homeless women veterans to the class.
“You’re literally blowing my mind with this,” he said, looking stricken. “I had no idea they were even out there.” When questioned about this further, he referenced not having ever seen women veterans in stereotypical situations we’ve come to associate with the homeless, like panhandling with a cardboard sign at intersections. Since he hadn’t seen them, he just naturally assumed — like many Americans — that they didn’t exist.
But “homelessness isn’t something you advertise,” says Marine veteran Rosie Palfy of Cleveland. “I was very ashamed of being homeless,” says Palfy. “My family didn’t even know that I was.”
“Stand on a street corner and advertise that ‘I’m a woman veteran, and I’m homeless?’” asks Navy veteran and advocate Rebecca Fothergill-Murch in Seattle, incredulously. “You might as well run over me with a bus! Because I’m not going to do that.”
Kristine Hesse agrees. “You’re not going to find homeless women veterans on the street,” she says, “We’re living in cars; we’re staying in bad relationships; we don’t look (typically) homeless.” Hesse lives in Los Angeles, where she advocates for women veterans fulltime, after leaving a 24-year career in the Air Force, retiring as a master sergeant.
Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Edie Disler, the outreach director for the Texas Veterans Commission, sees the same thing. The trouble starts with the persistent American myth of the homeless veteran as a male hobo, she suggests. “Nobody has a visual image in their minds of homeless women veterans with children.”
This problem isn’t a new one. “Historically, homeless men have been romanticized in American consciousness in a way that homeless women have not,” writes Alix Kates Shulman in the foreword to a book about homeless women published in 1982.
So this federal count, which attempts to estimate the number of homeless veterans, may miss the majority of women veterans who struggle with unstable housing for this very reason — they don’t appear to be homeless, and they don’t show up in places intended for the homeless. Instead, they stay off the grid through various means, frequently couch-surfing with friends and family, sleeping in their cars, or staying in relationships characterized by domestic violence rather than sleeping outdoors or staying in shelters.
We have uncovered more about this phenomenon in a path-breaking survey of women veterans from every era. The survey, with more than 400 respondents, showed that more than half the women veterans reported couch-surfing, also known as doubling up with friends and family, while very few chose to sleep outdoors or stay in shelters. We will provide much more detail about the results of this survey, the first of its kind, in the next article in this series.
“One of the significant shortfalls in attempting to adequately confront the issue of homelessness in our female veteran population is that we lack an accurate way to identify those female veterans who are homeless throughout the nation,” write the co-authors of a white paper on just that subject.
In fact, counts of the homeless have always been suspect, or at the very least, fraught with accuracy issues, according to Kim Hopper, Ph.D., a Columbia University anthropologist who has studied homelessness in depth. “Any attempt to arrive at an accurate number of homeless people in a given area is subject to a host of difficulties,” he wrote in Reckoning with Homelessness. “The estimates that surface from time to time have proven notoriously unreliable, subject to wild discrepancies depending on methods of estimation used, sources relied on, the season of the year, and (it may not be too cynical to suggest) the intended purpose of the count.”
But let’s go back to our stereotypical image of who a homeless veteran is — the older white male, Vietnam era, often with longtime substance abuse issues or chronic mental health issues, and sometimes both. That image, while intact, is also changing dramatically. Women veterans who are homeless resemble that mythical image hardly at all.
Ask Army major Jas Boothe, who founded a transitional home for female service members in Washington, DC, who comes through the doors of Final Salute, Inc., and she’ll tell you. “Over seventy percent of them are single mothers,” she says. And she describes their pattern of couch-surfing, a practice also known as doubling up, where women veterans stay as long as they can with friends and relatives, their goals being “avoiding the dangers of living on the street” and “fear of losing custody of their children,” according to Boothe.
Boothe, who’s been on Oprah, knows the pain of being homeless personally. She cared enough about the issue to put thousands of dollars of her own money into starting the transitional home for women veterans. And every year, Final Salute sponsors the “Ms. Veteran America” competition that serves as a fundraiser for the organization. Hollywood filmmaker Lysa Heslov is making a movie about the event, and you can see the trailer here.
Army veteran BriGette McCoy, a well-known military sexual trauma advocate who also serves as a veterans commissioner in the Atlanta area, sees what Boothe sees. “How do you serve a population that’s so well-hidden, who stays under the radar because they’re traumatized?” she asks. McCoy knows. She’s one of the stars of the 2011 documentary, “Service: When Women Come Marching Home,” by three time Emmy award-winning director and NYU professor Marcia Rock. The film depicts her homelessness after military sexual assault, as she struggles to recover from her injuries and hold her family together (McCoy has two daughters). “Women don’t want to lose their kids,” says McCoy. “I know I stayed under the radar.”
The connection between military sexual assault and periods of homelessness for women veterans has yet to be explored in depth by researchers. In fact, the whole field of research into women veteran homelessness has been very slim. Until five years ago, a comprehensive literature review revealed only two articles on female veteran homelessness, remarked VA researcher Jack Tsai, Ph.D., in an article published in 2012.
This past summer, however, the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry published the results of a study linking military sexual assault, also known as military sexual trauma (MST), to homelessness at multiple intervals of time for both male and female veterans.
This connection between MST and homelessness may turn out to be the most fruitful connection yet.
It’s certainly a link in many of the women veterans’ stories I’ve come to learn over the past two years, as I’ve dug into this topic deeply, both by conducting original, IRB-approved research and interviewing women veterans all over the country for an International Women’s Media Foundation reporting grant.
Rosie Palfy, the Marine veteran we met earlier, left the service with her military records reflecting an MST case. Yet, when she applied for compensation through VA, her claim took eight and a half years to be approved, including several denials — despite her records clearly indicating that the assault had taken place. Palfy is sure that the time her claim took forced her hand on homelessness. Like many homeless women she met during a lengthy stay at Front Steps, a Cleveland transitional housing facility, Palfy was working several part-time jobs, from leasing apartments to selling cars at a dealership on commission. “Even if they hadn’t paid my whole claim,” she says, looking back. “Some money is better than no money. Even bus fare would have helped.”
While projects such as Mary Calvert’s series of astonishing documentary photographs of homeless women veterans paint a compelling picture, they also only tell part of the story. Not every homeless woman veteran is chronically homeless; and, according to VA researchers, unlike their male counterparts in that stereotype of the homeless veteran from years gone by, they’re less likely to struggle with substance abuse or severe mental health issues, with the possible exception of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often as a result of military sexual trauma. In addition, they’re often single mothers, with dependent children in tow. And — in a recent twist — they’re also likely to have seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Military sexual trauma is a landmine conversation,” says McCoy. “But you can’t stop homelessness without addressing MST.”
A trauma history certainly explains homeless women veterans’ resistance to staying in male-dominated shelters, which as Final Salute’s Boothe pointed out earlier, they may perceive as unsafe. (Shelters often have rules for age and gender of children, and single mothers can resist separating their children in order to secure such housing.) Accordingly, “It is not well understood how (VA), an institution that has historically almost exclusively served males, is providing services to homeless female veterans with children in its ambitious goal to end homelessness among veterans,” wrote Tsai and his co-authors in a study published two years ago. The ambitious goal of eradicating veteran homelessness, as first proposed by President Obama and then-VA Secretary Shinseki, had set the end of 2015 as its target date. The deadline was later extended to 2016, and then finally, it seems, abandoned as functionally impossible. Still, tremendous strides were made. Earlier this month, VA touted a “47 percent reduction in homelessness among veterans” since 2010, according to a press release.
Yet the methods for estimating veterans who are homeless, especially women veterans, are seriously flawed. And even the reduction alluded to does not include a breakdown by gender, so while numbers of male veterans who are homeless are dropping, the numbers of female veterans becoming homeless is actually on the rise, a fact obscured by the way the figures are released.
Additionally, more women are becoming veterans — their numbers are expected to increase by about 17 percent over the coming two decades, which creates a greater urgency to address this issue.
Despite strides in reducing the number of veterans who lack permanent housing, greater attention needs to be paid to how and why women veterans experience it. As Final Salute’s Jas Boothe says, “Homelessness is not a mission you ever prepare for.”