Why Homelessness in Women Veterans is An Issue Worth Addressing

Within the first couple of days after I was selected to be a semi-finalist competing for the Ms. Veteran America 2021 title, I was brainstorming ideas to launch my fundraising campaign for Final Salute, Inc. I work out at the Fort Campbell Medical Skills Training Center (MSTC), The Rascon School of Combat Medicine, where I am primarily responsible for overseeing the revalidation and training of combat medics on our installation. We kind of slowed down on training as a lot of our medics had been activated on this COVID-19 Vaccine mission around the United States, so I had plenty of time to focus my attention on this project. I decided to go with the veteran holding a sign image, because I really appreciate what the Instagram account @veteranwithasign has been doing! If you're not already following them, please do. Aside from their funny signs, they have also pushed resiliency, suicide awareness, and other important veteran-centric issues and messages on their platform. Lots of big names in the Veteran community (like Tim Kennedy and even SMA Grinston) have hopped on the bandwagon to get their message out, so I did too!

 

 

                

With the help of my coworker out at the MSTC, who is also a female veteran and talented photographer (@michellejohnsphotography), we created this sign that says "women veterans are more likely to become homeless than their male counterparts" and went out to the field on the property and captured this image:
   

    I found this statement on an infographic on Final Salute, Inc.'s website, and I knew upfront how bold it was and that it would grab attention. I anticipated a lot of questions regarding the words on the cardboard, and I was right. I was, and still am, challenged on the actual statement's accuracy (as well as why I'm not wearing my headgear in the the photograph, ha! It's a "no hat, no salute zone" here guys, relax). That's why I wanted to write this blog and explain the meaning here. 

    What I am not saying here is that there are more homeless women veterans than males. I think this is the most common thing I have to clarify. Obviously there are more male veterans as a whole than females. We know this. With that said, it is reasonable to assume without even researching data that there are likely more homeless male veterans than female as well. I've never been incredible at math or statistics, and even I can come to that conclusion. And ya'll, I care deeply about the homeless veteran population as a whole, regardless of gender. It is an issue across the board and every veteran deserves resources and support to serve their needs as they have served us. 

    Unfortunately, the specific population of homeless women veterans has been greatly underestimated and unrepresented. This is mostly due to the way the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and VA collect the data. They do this with a PIT count, annually. This is a point-in-time count that they do on a given day each year (usually the end of January) that captures the amount of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. Jas Boothe, the founder of Final Salute, Inc. and her team did a great job explaining how the numbers don't add up in their white paper (read here at www.finalsaluteinc.org). They discuss that the way homeless persons are defined by the HUD leads to inaccurate reporting, and fails to record the number of individuals who "couch-surf" or temporarily bounce from friend to family member's residences. This is the case for many people who are homeless or facing homelessness, but especially women. Not only do these parameters fail to include them on their PIT counts, but the definition also further restricts them from certain grants and resources they would otherwise qualify for. The majority of homeless women veterans are accompanied by their children. In an effort to avoid the dangers of living on the streets, maintain custody, and keep away from shelters that typically focus on the needs of male residents and are not trauma-informed, they seek temporary fixes in the form of couch-surfing or doubling up with friends and family. This is one of the major reasons why homeless women veterans are known as an "invisible homeless population". 

    Additionally, it's estimated that 82% of women veterans are not using the VA for healthcare. Because of this, a large number of women veterans are unaccounted for when the VA screens veterans for housing instability through their Homelessness Screening Clinical Reminder (HSCR) tool. Out of 22 million veterans, 2.2 million are female. For example, in 2017 the HSCR was available to 3 million veterans and the majority were white males between the ages of 51-60. This method of screening leaves 1,800,000 women veterans unscreened and uncounted. 

    Anyway, back to the sign because that's the controversy yes? How is it that women veterans are more likely to become homeless than male veterans? According to studies available at both the HUD and VA, some of the major themes in contributing risk factors for homelessness amongst our veterans (both male and female) include PTSD, substance abuse, military sexual trauma, and lack of social support. Surprisingly, combat exposure-related PTSD did not prove to be an identified risk, probably because of the large allocation of government funding for this specific diagnosis related to military service that is paid out in the form of disability. On another note, military sexual trauma is estimated to occur in 38% of all female veterans, and only 4% of male veterans. I believe the contrast in these numbers comes from two important factors. One being that males tend to not report cases of MST, and therefore are underrepresented entirely in that statistic. However, in general, women are more likely to become victims of sexual violence than men. At what rate? I have no idea. Regardless of sex, MST significantly increases the risk of homelessness in veterans. The effects of MST manifest as substance abuse, social isolation, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. All of these I have already pointed out to also being risk factors of homelessness. 

    Between 2016 and 2017, homelessness in veteran women increased by 7% (compared to 1% in male vets). Risk for homelessness in male veterans tends to increase by age up to 65. In women veterans, the risk is more so in the younger population that falls in the post 9/11 era. Even though the overall number of homeless veterans is declining, the amount of homeless female veterans is increasing. This is reasonably attributed to the number of females that continue to join the military at large. It is said that women veterans are the "fastest growing population" of all homeless demographics in the United States. It can be linked to the increase of female service members overall, as well as the difficulties they face while serving and how those adverse events carry over into their civilians lives. Consider the history of the way the military has handled cases of MST, and how that impacts the trust women veterans put into VA services like healthcare and housing. Unfortunately, in too many circumstances women will even disassociate with the title of "veteran" and their military service after feeling abandoned by the military after facing such trauma. 

    It's important to understand that women veterans facing homelessness tend to shy away from VA funded shelters. Veteran housing programs typically focus their attention to accommodating your traditional older and single male homeless veteran. Women are more likely to turn to non-profit and community organized centers and programs that will meet their unique challenges (trauma-informed, and willing to accommodate children). There are few such organizations out there- ones like Final Salute, Inc. Which, if you have been paying attention, is the organization I have been fundraising for! They are the beneficiary of the Ms. Veteran America competition, and everything that I have sold on this website. 

    Thanks to all of you who have made a donation, bought merch from this site, or signed up for my team for the 5k/10k event coming up!

    If you want to donate today, please do so on my Facebook Fundraiser for Final Salute, Inc. You can find it at this link here:

    https://www.facebook.com/donate/441285120427349/