Headed for the Country: Women Veterans, Homelessness and Rural America
It may not have been a big surprise in and after the Vietnam era to realize how many veterans lived in rural America, including in places fairly off-the-grid, but it might be surprising to learn how many women veterans are choosing to move to rural America in current times.
Longtime national veterans advocate Diana Danis has some thoughts on this:
“Women veterans are moving to rural areas to get back to nature and calmer, more peaceful environments. Many women vets have issues with Post Traumatic Stress and exchanging the noises of ambulance, police and fire engine sirens for birds and wildlife, wind, night skies you can actually see and breathable air are pluses. Few or no neighbors are bonuses!”
Danis, who is also a senior advisor to the Women Veteran Social Justice Network (WVSJN) adds that she sees the phenomenon as pretty evenly split between women veterans choosing to move “back to rural areas they are from, and those seeking solace in a given area.” She notes a trend in women veterans moving moving to the Pacific Northwest, outside Seattle, and around Puget Sound, outside Portland, Oregon and along the Pacific Coast, even outside Las Vegas, near Austin and Houston in Texas, areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and outside metropolitan Denver/Boulder, all places where they perceive “a more liberal and progressive environment exists,” while noting that for “more conservative vets, most any rural area will do since most are (more) conservative (anyway).”
Overall, 18 percent of all Americans, and almost one in four (23 percent) of all veterans live in rural parts of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s Office of Rural Health.
In previous articles we’ve taken a look at how many women veterans there are by state, how many are likely to be living in poverty and/or at risk for homelessness, and what states’ capacities are to serve women veterans when they become homeless. In a separate series we’ve told the stories of women veterans and how they’ve experienced homelessness. Be sure to check those out if you’re interested in the bigger picture.
This time we want to take a look at something almost no one is talking about, which is the number of women veterans living in rural America — and what their access to services might be, especially if they’re living in poverty or are homeless.
(Click on the series of datavizzes linked here — they’re sortable and scrollable and provide much more information about your state. Just don’t try ’em on your phone because the interactivity is lost.)
Looking at where women veterans live throughout the U.S., the “top five” states where the highest percentage of women veterans live in rural areas are:
- New Hampshire
- West Virginia
In only the first two states, Maine and Vermont, do more women veterans live in rural locations than urban — and in Vermont those numbers are roughly equal, according to relatively recent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (The top five states for women veterans living in urban areas are Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Nevada and California.)
Where women veterans live matters is because distance from urban centers can imply greater difficulty accessing services, including those available for homeless veterans.
“Many large urban areas have shelters, (but they were) not available to me because I was in a rural area,”
wrote one woman veteran in response to my original survey about periods of unstable housing after military service. She is white, lives in the South, served during peacetime, and experienced eviction, sleeping on someone’s couch and staying someplace that felt dangerous or unsafe — all as ways to accommodate her periods of homelessness after military service.
In the second survey of women veterans conducted two years later — which reached several thousand women veterans and asked many more questions, including about whether they experienced military sexual trauma (MST)— several respondents described how their rural location affected their experience of homelessness. The women veterans are both white, Army veterans, and experienced MST.
“The first time I was homeless I was told that there were no openings for females (at the shelter.) I live in a small town (in the rural Midwest). I could not use VA because I made too much. When the Vet Center counselor told VA that I needed mental health help again, I was told they had no openings due to being female and because I made too much. So I just went back to living in my car for another four months,”
said this woman veteran, an Army reservist, who reported sleeping in her car, staying in an unsafe relationship — in terms of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, and staying in a motel during the more than a year that she was homeless. She served four terms of duty in the military, and reported experiencing sexual harassment while she served.
Another woman veteran reported experiencing sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape during her more than 10 years of service, and described developing substance abuse issues, found herself experiencing homelessness multiple times — more than 10 times, for more than five years in total — and chalked some of the difficulty up to living in rural America at the time.
“Some of my problems evolved by (my) denying (my) MST for many years. When I finally talked there had been so much damage to every aspect of my life (it was) like a snowball effect. A veteran friend led me to the VA and my life started to get better. Some of my housing issues have been related to the rural area I live in. There should just be across-the-board help but in this part of the country I see (the) results of poverty (and) joblessness as additional hurdles, because in larger counties veterans take care of each other through organizations, etc.”
Additionally, the number of women veterans who are homeless in rural areas is on the increase, while the number of male veterans who are homeless in those areas is declining. (The same trends are true of male and female veterans in urban areas, as you can see you see from the above graph.) Overall, women veterans seem more likely to experience homelessness in rural rather than urban areas, but this is a very broad observation — and much more research needs to be done.
One thing we do know is that historically, over time, rural areas of American have been associated with greater poverty than other locations, with the exception of the urban core of cities, as the graphic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty shows.
VA’s own research indicates that veterans who live in rural America — as about a third of veterans enrolled in VA’s healthcare system do, tend to be older, more frequently disabled, and have better access to health insurance than their non-veteran counterparts, according to Ann-Elizabeth Montgomery, Ph.D. Rural veterans are also more likely than their urban counterparts to be white, married, have lower levels of educational attainment, and be in poorer health. (Since the bulk of the research has been done on male veterans, and very little research has been done on the differences between urban- and rural-dwelling veterans to date, these observations are more likely to be about male veterans than female veterans. Still, it provides a starting point for discussion.)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which periodically holds fantastic round table discussions about homelessness for researchers, advocates and interested others, discussed rural veteran homelessness in such a webinar last year.
One of the slides they shared (left) is that rural veterans are more likely than non-rural veterans to experience chronic medical issues, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder, according to their research. There is some concern that being located at a greater distance from health providers may affect rural veterans more, as well as having fewer economic opportunities available to them. But there are also some potential offsets. Rural veterans may already be from the areas they returned to after service, and so be part of a stronger, longer-term social network of family and friends who can provide support (and mutual support) when needed. Those who live in rural America may be tapping into, and reinforcing, a culture of self-reliance, where neighbors — even though located at a distance — do know one another and help one another out, or learn to make do without.
(A dear friend of mine lived fully off-the-grid in rural Washington state, and had for years — not driving, not venturing “off the mountain” as she liked to call it, and still having everything she needed to survive — even publishing a book that sold more than a quarter-million copies in her lifetime. The UPS driver and her friends seemed to bring her everything she needed, that she couldn’t grow, can or bottle herself. What a wonder she was!)
It’s also possible that veterans living in rural America are more likely to experience certain forms of homelessness, not coincidentally those I have begun to associate with how women veterans experience homelessness:
- Doubling-up (also known as couch-surfing), which means staying with a friend or family member, or even a stranger
- Sleeping in their vehicle
- Staying in substandard housing, which is unsanitary or dangerous.
All three of those choices were unfortunately prevalent among the more than 3,000 women veterans I have surveyed, in two separate surveys two years apart.
And as one research journal article points out,
“Because it does not fit into the urban stereotype, rural homelessness can easily go unnoticed or unrecognized.”
One of the other important issues mentioned in that VA webinar on rural veterans and homelessness was what amounts to the complexity of getting care in a rural environment. This item from a community action partnership in rural Oregon described an example of that.
As Diana Danis points out, rural veterans have “four additional huge problems” that are more-often-than-not difficult to overcome:
- Reliable transportation — distances to care, even when referred outside the VA can be brutal, especially when you are ill.
- Weather — extreme heat, rain, snow, cold — all can interrupt appointment schedules.
- Finances — having enough funds to travel to a lot of appointments takes a toll on limited income and there isn’t public transportation or VA or DAV assistance, and
- Lack of community services, non-profits, public assistance. Relying on neighbors and churches works for some, but most women vets are not treated the same as their male counterparts in the first place, and rural America is even more conservative about roles and “place,” whether we like it or not.
Furthermore, she adds, “ I would also remind people that in the large population vet states like California, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania — their rural vet populations rival the actual total women vet populations of some of the western States with tiny populations. Also, in states like Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana — damn near everywhere is rural .”
With a dearth of research into women veterans and homelessness, and the subset of women veterans choosing to live in rural America after service, we want to be aware of any additional difficulties and barriers to care (including social services) this trend may exacerbate.
Beyond care that VA provides for women veterans, including those at risk for and currently struggling with homelessness, what additional supports need to be in place, to strengthen the social safety net?
Is your state — or your community — ready to a) recognize the phenomenon of homelessness among women veterans and b) ready to support this population when they need services? If not, how could that capacity be improved?