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VA works to keep up with growing number of homeless female veterans

Veterans homelessness used to be an issue associated with men, but that’s rapidly changing.

According to the General Accountability Office the number of homeless female veterans more than doubled between 2006 and 2010.

That’s a problem because the Department of Veterans Affairs has historically built its programs for men.

In the second instalment of a two part series on veterans homelessness, Tim Lloyd reports on how the VA is trying to keep up with the growing number of homeless female veterans.

A laundry list of challenges

Anne Garcia walks into her room at what the VA calls "the Dom," an addiction treatment and job training facility at Jefferson Barracks.

The Air Force veteran has been homeless for four years. She’s middle aged and has a voice made rough by cigarettes and long nights. A proud mother, she shows off pictures of her daughter that are taped on her locker.

“That’s me and her when she came to see me on Christmas and I wrote 'my motivation,'" Garcia says. "Yeah, my daughter is my sweetheart.”

Clean and sober, Garcia works nights stocking shelves at the Wal-Mart down the road from Jefferson Barracks. Her ex-husband is taking care of her daughter while she gets back on her feet.

But, that’s a luxury a lot of homeless female veterans just don’t have.

VA psychologist Lennora Brown is in charge of the Dom.

“We are going to have to address the issue of female veterans as the primary custodian of children," Brown says. "Our male veterans also have children, but usually they’re with the mothers.  So how do we address that?  With female veterans providing the primary care for the children.”

That’s just one issue in a laundry list of challenges facing the VA as the number of homeless female veterans continues to rise.

“And the VA recognizes that there needs to be a paradigm shift,” Brown says.

She says the agency was built for men and is hustling to keep up with the growing number of homeless female veterans.

That’s especially true for programs like the one she runs, which combines mental health services, substance abuse treatment and job training.

“In the St. Louis VA, for a residential program, the four beds here would be the only four beds,” Brown says.

Changing perceptions

But meeting the needs of female veterans is about far more than housing - it’s also about changing perceptions. For example, Brown says some women struggle after having traumatic experiences during active duty.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have women who have a background in military sexual trauma," Brown says. "I think a lot of times people think, 'well, that happened in the past, just put that behind me and I’m going to move on.' And they don’t recognize how that trauma really affects them.”

According to the VA, one in five women experience a sexual trauma while in the in the military. 

Sweeping those types of experiences under the rug can be one in a number of risk factors for becoming homeless.

Joanne Joseph coordinates the VA’s homeless program in St. Louis and has researched how this plays out locally.

“This population tends to stay with family longer," Joseph says. "And one of the things we found out was women tend to not identify as homeless.”

Community partners and high demand

In response the local VA is reaching out through its community partners. The idea is to make sure women know services are available for them, even if they haven’t always been there in the past.

“We have not historically had transitional housing services for women," Joseph says. "Our new permanent housing program focuses on women veterans. So, we do have more programming now than we have historically.”

The centerpieces of the program are housing vouchers funded by both the VA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Vouchers help veterans pay rent and are earmarked for those who need ongoing clinical help.

Even though they’re available for all veterans, Joseph says they’ve focused heavily on women in St. Louis.  Locally, more than a third of the 120 vouchers are being used by women, many of whom have children.   
But demand has been so high that the VA has run out of the vouchers in St. Louis, and has to refer women to other housing options.

In response to similar demand around the country the agency is asking Congress for an extra $200 million to expand the program next year.

Links to services for homeless veterans:


Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.