There are approximately 55,000 homeless female veterans in the United States on any given day. Research from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) indicates that homelessness among women veterans doubled from fiscal year 2006 to fiscal year 2011, jumping from 1,380 persons to 3,328 persons.
These numbers are tragic. The women who have expended enormous sacrifices to serve their country should not be denied the most basic of needs—housing.
In order to alleviate the struggles of homeless female veterans, improved data collection and reporting is needed. Despite the recent contribution of HUD—which came in the form of creating an official homeless subpopulation for female veterans in their most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR)—the lack of data and research on female veterans is hampering the efforts of CoCs nationwide.
Homeless Female Veterans: The Need for Data
The percentage of women veterans serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn and Operation Enduring Freedom (approximately 11 percent) is substantially less than that of male veterans. Yet a 2012 study conducted by the VA Office of Inspector General found women veterans experience higher incidences of homelessness than their male counterparts. In addition, compared to females in the general population , female veterans are more than twice as likely to experience homelessness.
Lack of adequate data has resulted in a dearth of information necessary to meet the needs of homeless female veterans.
This has obstructed efforts to provide adequate services, and hampered evidence-based decision-making regarding the proper allocation of grants. However, knowledgeable VA and HUD officials reported that adequate data collection on homeless female veterans would incur minimal burden and cost.
Factors Contributing to Homelessness Among Female Veterans
In their report, the VA Office of Inspector General recommended that the focus be placed on the risk factors that lead to veteran homelessness. Therefore, to begin providing appropriate services to homeless female veterans, it is important to first understand their vulnerabilities to homelessness.
As mentioned earlier, women veterans present with homelessness factors that are unique to their population, differing significantly from their male counterparts. Research indicates male veterans often become homeless due to mental illness and substance abuse.
It is quite different for female veterans, however. While some female veterans do struggle with mental illness and substance abuse, they also struggle with higher prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). MST presents in the forms of harassment and sexual assault that female military personnel experienced while serving their country. MST often leads to the debilitating effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
In addition to MST, there are several other factors that make female veterans vulnerable to homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, a complex interplay of factors lead to homelessness among female veterans.
Below are the most prominent factors.
Females face difficulties transferring skills obtained in the military to the civilian workforce. While this alone can lead to unemployment, some female veterans also experience high rates of job loss, as well as lack of job training and skills assessment, both of which can lead to unemployment.
Lack of Veterans Benefits and Legal Troubles
Some veterans are not eligible for benefits due to an Other Than Honorable (OTH) Discharge. For many veterans, the very OTH Discharge that leaves them without access benefits are the direct result their experiences while serving their country. Many veterans survive active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan only to come home to struggle with substance abuse, which is often a coping mechanism for symptoms of PTSD and Depression. Substance abuse then qualifies them for an OTH Discharge. While veterans with an OTH Discharge are able to petition for benefits, this process can take a year or longer to find its way through government red tape.
From 2008 to 2012, 20,000 male and female veterans exited the Armed Forces with an OTH Discharge, leaving them without access to healthcare and disability benefits. This population has been left to struggle with physical disabilities as well as the debilitating effects of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Mental Health Issues
MST is high among female veterans. According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 1 in 5 female veterans report MST. Consequently, women who have experienced MST are at higher risk of developing PTSD. VA data show that almost 20 percent of women veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.
The high levels of trauma experienced by female veterans are also reflected in high prevalence depression among members of this population. In FY 2009 and FY 2010 depression was among the top three diagnostic categories for women veterans treated by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
In general, 48 percent of veterans have diagnosed mental illness and/or TBI at the time of discharge. Homeless veterans are 2-3 times more likely than their domiciled counterparts to suffer from TBI.
Lack of Shelter Resources
Another cause of homelessness among female veterans is the lack of shelter resources. Far more women veterans are single parents than men, but Grant Per Diem (GPD) programs do not house children, thus eliminating shelter opportunities for many homeless female veterans.
Further, those GPD programs that do house children place restrictions on age and the amount of children they are willing to house. These constraints can be attributed in part to the financial disincentives for GPD providers to offer such care; the VA lacks the ability and authority to reimburse these GPD programs the costs necessary to house the children of veterans.
Problems With Existing Policies, Services, And Programs
Even if women are able to find shelter in GPD housing, many reported safety concerns in these facilities. In a 2011 survey conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), homeless female veterans cited safety concerns about GPD housing, and several of the GPD programs surveyed reported incidents of sexual harassment or assault on women residents. This can be partly attributed to the fact that the VA does not enforce gender-specific safety standards in GPD housing, making women vulnerable to further trauma.
Need for Centralized Intake & Coordinated Assessment
The CoC Interim Rule provides hope for female veterans who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk for homelessness. This rule calls for centralized intake and coordinated assessment, which can remedy slow or misdirected referral processes and lack of cohesive data collection, both of which have hindered many female veterans from obtaining the services they need.
For example, VA staff is required to generate referrals for shelter and short-term housing services for homeless female veterans as they await placement in veteran housing. However, many homeless female veterans report never receiving such referrals. In fact, approximately 24 percent of VA homeless coordinators reported (to the GAO) they did not even have any referral plans or processes to temporarily house women veterans awaiting placement in GPD and HUD-VASH programs.
Also, many homeless women female surveyed by the GAO were not aware of the veteran housing services that are available to them. The lack of collaboration among and between agencies has resulted in many female veterans being shuffled from agency to agency, filling out redundant paperwork, only to be sent to yet another agency.
Further, data analysis from the 2011 GAO survey indicated that one fourth of those homeless female veterans that do manage to arrange for appropriate services wait an average of 30 days to be placed into GPD programs. This lack of intermediary care leaves homeless female veterans vulnerable for further traumatization as they often reside on the streets or other locations that are unsafe.
In response to their survey, the GAO proposed numerous solutions, several of which directly highlight the need for centralized intake and coordinated assessment. The following is taken from the GAO report:
- Recommendation: In order to ensure homeless women veterans have an appropriate place to stay while they await placement in GPD or HUD-VASH housing, the Secretary of VA should ensure implementation of VA’s referral policies.
- Recommendation: In order to help achieve the goal of ending homelessness among veterans, the Secretaries of VA and HUD should collaborate to ensure appropriate data are collected on homeless women veterans, including those with children and those with disabilities, and use these data to strategically plan for services.
Streamlined centralized intake and coordinated assessment is the primary way to meet these requirements. However, this calls for amplified data collection and reporting efforts from CoCs nationwide. This cohesiveness can be made possible only through sophisticated HMIS solutions.
Such HMIS solutions can address the causes of homelessness in the female veteran population in numerous ways:
- Connect female veterans with caseworkers to arrange employment opportunities that meet their unique skill sets.
- Direct female veterans to benefits that are available to them, and assist those with OTH Discharges in getting the support and treatment they need.
- Alleviate mental health struggles through appropriate and timely referrals. This would result in proper diagnoses and effective treatment for those suffering from PTSD, TBI, depression and other mental health problems.
- Assist female veterans with disabilities to receive the care they need to regain and sustain their independence and autonomy.
- Increase the availability of safe shelters that meet the unique needs of female veterans.
Serving this population must start at the agency level in order for the benefits to extend to national policymakers. HMIS solutions that are equipped with state-of-the-art eligibility engines, quality data collection tools, and powerful reporting capabilities can empower policy-makers to make the evidence-driven decisions that can help eliminate female veteran homelessness by 2015.