As the number of women serving in the military has increased, female Veterans have become the fastest growing demographic in America’s homeless community.
Today, women comprise approximately nine percent of all Veterans, and the best available official estimates suggest that they make up the same proportion of the homeless Veteran population. Although the overall Veteran population is expected to decline over the next two decades, the number of women Veterans is projected to increase during the same period. Moreover, the number of women Veterans who may require assistance from VA programs for Veterans who are homeless or are at-risk of homelessness is expected to rise by nearly 5% by 2025.
Both in deployment and at home, female Veterans may be more likely to face some challenges than their male counterparts. Without intervention, these risk factors – such as experiencing military sexual trauma (MST), domestic violence, wage disparity or discrimination – can put them at risk of homelessness. For example, women Veterans who have experienced MST are nine times more at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more prone to substance abuse disorders, factors that greatly increase their susceptibility to homelessness.
Despite these many risk factors, women Veterans are still less likely to access VA care and less likely to self-identify as Veterans. Additionally, there are more community programs – like grants for single mothers, local domestic violence support programs, and more – tailored to supporting women’s needs, making female Veterans less likely to seek support through VA programs. VA continues to tailor programs and strengthen local, state and federal partnerships to help us break down barriers to access, so that all Veterans in need receive the care and support they deserve.
Specialized housing, child care and employment services
VA provides a range of resources to meet the unique needs of women Veterans who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.
- Family housing and wraparound support with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH). A higher percent of women Veterans have a service connected disability, have no income, and are in poverty than men – compounding risk factors that greatly increase the risk of homelessness. Designed to provide permanent housing to chronically homeless Veterans, HUD-VASH prioritizes disabled Veterans with dependent children, many of whom are women. Unlike grant-based housing programs, HUD-VASH provides eligible Veterans with housing subsidies that can be used to securing housing options that can accommodate an entire family instead of a single person. This program is part of the Housing First approach, an evidence-based, low-barrier housing model that emphasizes housing as the initial service, followed by supportive services such as employment and healthcare.
- Child care subsidies and rapid rehousing through Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program (SSVF). While the average homeless male Veteran is single, many female Veterans experiencing homelessness are parents. This brings a host of other considerations to bear when caring for this community like access to family housing and affordable child care. In fact, VA and community providers ranked child care as the highest unmet need of homeless Veterans from Fiscal Year 2008-2010. The SSVF program has awarded grants to organizations that provide supportive services to very low income Veterans, survivors of domestic violence and those struggling with mental health conditions and addictions, as well as their family members. This program can be particularly helpful for single mothers, who can find rapid rehousing assistance through the program and use SSVF subsidies to cover child care costs that could otherwise be a prohibitive employment and housing barrier.
- Employment and professional development opportunities through Homeless Veteran Community Employment Services (HVCES). Employment plays an important role in helping Veterans – male and female alike – exit homelessness and reintegrate back into their community. Amongst homeless women Veterans who have access to VA services, 77 percent are unemployed. HVCES helps businesses and industry identify, interview and hire job-ready Veterans exiting homelessness, and pairs this employment emphasis with wraparound services to address the root causes of homelessness and help Veterans maintain long-term stable employment. Through a network of over 150 community employment coordinators, HVCES staff work alongside community partners to identify gaps in employment services for homeless Veterans and helps to fill them.
The impact of several of these programs can be seen in Tracey Staff’s experiences with VA. After relocating to Houston, Tracey had trouble securing a stable job. Soon, she and her son were living in low-rate motels and couch-surfing at friends’ houses. Tracey eventually sought assistance from VA’s SSVF program, which offers employment services, referrals to housing, case management, temporary financial assistance and help applying for VA benefits. The assistance she received led to stable housing and secure meaningful employment in Goodwill’s Veteran Services Office. With a stable income and the support of SSVF, she is now able to take care of her family and also support local Veterans like her.
Or take Ayana Jones, a 40-year-old mother of three who became homeless after experiencing domestic violence and going through a divorce. After seeking assistance from her local VA Medical Center, Jones was provided with supportive services and entered programs that allowed her and her three children to be rehoused. Jones is now eager to purchase her own home and volunteers in her local community’s domestic violence shelters, churches, and Veteran clinics.
The experiences of Staff and Jones are not unusual: in fiscal year 2016, women Veterans accounted for approximately 12% of those served by HUD-VASH, 13% of those served by SSVF, and 10.4% of those served by HVCES. In addition to the thousands of women Veterans who exit homelessness each year as a result of the interventions provided by VA homeless programs, many more are prevented from becoming homeless. VA will remain committed to serving all Veterans, no matter their circumstances or background. Moreover, we will continue to use all available data to refine VA programs and adjust the allocation of VA resources — when necessary — to ensure that the needs of all subpopulations of Veterans, including women Veterans, are met.
If you are a woman Veteran experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, please call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838), or visit your nearest VA Medical Center or regional benefits office where dedicated advocates for women Veterans are ready to assist.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Keith Harris, executive director of the VA Homeless Program Office, and Kayla Williams, director of the Center for Women Veterans. Dr. Harris is a clinical psychologist who provides guidance and oversight to the clinical programs in the VHA Homeless Program continuum.