GI Jane Needs A Place to Sleep
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 going to do that.”
Kristine Stanley 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.” Stanley 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 former 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.”
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.
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.
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 and Patricia Lee Stotter. 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.”
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 delay in approving 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.”
“Military sexual trauma is a landmine conversation,” says McCoy. “But you can’t stop homelessness without addressing MST.”
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.”
NOTE: This article is the first in a three-part series, Coming Out of the Shadows: Women Veterans and Homelessness. The reporting for this series was conducted under a Howard G. Buffett inaugural grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Additional articles in the series are located here: ” Into the Gap: Women Veterans Describe Homelessness,” (Bonus material: ” Camaraderie Offsets Trauma for Women Veterans” about military sexual trauma, and rapport with fellow women veterans), and ” The Path Home for Women Veterans,” the conclusion to the series. There are also two additional stories that capture further aspects of the topic: ” Homeless Women Veterans Struggle to Be Seen” and ” Down for the Count: Women Veterans Likely Underestimated in Federal Homelessness Figures.”
There is also an interactive timeline of how we got to this point, a radio show/podcast including Lily Casura, BriGette McCoy and Rosie Palfy talking about female veteran homelessness, a data visualization showing the comments of 400 women veterans describing their experiences of unstable housing after military service, and if you’re a woman and a U.S. military veteran, no longer on active duty, there’s a link to a short, 5-minute, IRB-approved survey to take – while it stays open – about housing issues after military service.