Hidden Numbers: Why Far More Women Veterans May Be Homeless Than You Realize
When women service members — soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines — come home from serving their country, they may find that their country , and particularly the state to which they return , is woefully unprepared to serve them.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this — what the numbers are, and what they mean.
There are over 2 million women veterans in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or about 10 percent of veterans, a percentage that will only continue to rise as more and more women continue to serve in the U.S. military. According to VA:
While the overall veteran population is projected to decline substantially over the next 25 years, the number of female veterans will increase both in absolute and relative terms. In FY 2015 there were an estimated 2 million female veterans. By 2020, there will be approximately 2.2 million, with growth projected to level off in 2035. By 2040, there will be about 2.4 million female veterans.
Here’s how many women veterans there are in each state, using figures provided by VA in 2017. The big five are: Texas, Florida, California, Virginia and Georgia. (All the graphics that follow are part of a series of interactive data visualizations on the Web, that allow you to drill down to your state or any states of interest. Be sure to check out that #dataviz here, but look at it on a desktop or a laptop — the interactivity is lost on a phone. In the meantime, we’ll use static graphics here to illustrate what’s going on.)
Here’s a look at what percent women veterans represent of all the veterans in your state. Using a combination of VA and U.S. Census Bureau — American Community Survey figures, the percentage of women veterans appears to range from a low of 6.6 percent in Massachusetts to a high of 14.9 percent in Virginia. The bar chart shows more clearly the top states for women veterans by percentage — but remember there’s also a dynamic version of this on the Web, where you can scroll down to see all 50 states. The top five states by percentage of women veterans are not the same as the top five overall for sheer numbers — both Virginia and Georgia make both “top five” lists. They are, in order, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Alaska, Georgia and Maryland.
Now let’s take a look at some of the social impacts of this information.
The VA estimates that about 10 percent of women veterans are living in poverty. Now, some states experience greater poverty levels than others, but even without adjusting for that — just using a straight calculation of 10 percent of the women veterans who live in the state — here’s what a map of where women veterans are likely to be living in poverty looks like.
Separately, VA has estimated that between 13 and 15 percent of women veterans who are living in poverty (see previous graphic) are also likely to be homeless. These two maps, above, illustrate the low end and the high end of that 13 to 15 percent range.
(Of course, there are also “risk factors” and “protective factors” that increase or decrease the amount of homelessness expected beyond just taking a look at poverty, but those factors are just beginning to be figured out for women veterans as a population separate from male veterans, who appear to enter, exit and experience homelessness differently from male veterans.)
Living in Poverty
Now let’s change the lens a bit.
Quite apart from looking at VA figures, we know that poverty levels are not the same across America, but differ from state to state. Historically, women experience greater poverty than men, decade after decade, so it’s also important to look at gender-specific poverty rates by state, not just use an all-inclusive average for the country (or even the state). So what we’ve needed is a way to figure out which states have higher levels of women living in poverty, and then adjust the estimates accordingly to reflect how many women veterans are likely to be living in poverty in each state.
Poverty rates for women in the U.S. vary by state from a low of 7 percent (New Hampshire and Maryland) to a high of 23 percent (Mississippi), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which took a look at the non-elderly adult population by gender, using Census estimates from the current population survey (March, 2017).
If we go ahead and use those percentages instead, we can calculate more likely-to-be-realistic estimates for the number of women veterans living in poverty in each state. Keep in mind that these are really the floor not the ceiling for estimates. VA research has separately concluded that women veterans are more than twice as likely as non-veteran women, and over three times as likely as non-veteran women living in poverty to experience homelessness. But it at least gives us somewhere to start, and an opportunity to offset the unrealistically low numbers that emanate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s annual Point-in-Time count which cannot adequately account for how women veterans experience homelessness.
By using this revised formula, most estimates change considerably. In a few states, the estimates of how many women veterans may be living in poverty actually go down — Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire and Utah. Four states stay the same —Hawaii, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Jersey. But all the rest go up, and some by quite a bit. The estimates for Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia, all states with high poverty for women — all at least double. West Virginia’s estimate increases by 230 percent. So now we have a more realistic sense of how many women veterans are likely to be in poverty in each state, which we’ll need for the next piece of this — how many women veterans are likely to be homeless in each state.
Using VA’s calculation from the research literature that between 13 and 15 percent of women veterans living in poverty are likely to be homeless — and basing that on the new, revised estimate of how many are in poverty per state — we come up with new ranges.
For the top five states by population for women veterans, we can now estimate that:
- Texas — Approximately 24,851 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 3,231 and 3,728 women veterans are homeless.
- Florida —Approximately 20,192 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 2,625 and 3,029 women veterans are homeless.
- California — Approximately 18,617 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 2,420 and 2,793 women veterans are homeless.
- Virginia — Approximately 13,509 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 1,756 and 2,026 women veterans are homeless.
- Georgia — Approximately 13,310 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 1,730 and 1,997 women veterans are homeless.
The same calculations could go ahead be made for every state. The effect of this overall recalculation for the U.S. raises the numbers by about a third — for women veterans living in poverty, and for women veterans living at both the low end and the high end of the range for experiencing homelessness.
Of course, in addition to poverty, other factors increase the risk of a woman veteran becoming homeless. For example, experiencing military sexual trauma increases the risk of homelessness about 400 percent, according to VA estimates. (It increases the risk of homelessness for male veterans as well.)
Why this matters
If you were to answer the question, “How many women veterans are homeless in the U.S. right now,” and you were savvy enough to use VA’s calculation as more precise than HUD’s, the range would be 24,477 to 28,243. By revising the calculations to reflect a more likely view of how many women veterans are living in poverty in each state, we can suggest that the numbers of women veterans who are likely to be homeless, right now, in America are more likely to range between 32,642 and 37,664. Either the VA or the non-VA estimates are far more likely to be the case than HUD’s estimate of 3,571(!) women veterans for 2017, based on the Point in Time count (finding veterans and other homeless who sleep outdoors on one night in late January) and those who move through services intended for the homeless (like shelters) in a year. Previously, we have addressed why women veterans — because of frequent trauma histories and/or their status as single mothers of dependent children — are unlikely to stay in places that the count would find them.
In my ongoing survey of women veterans from every era about experiences of homelessness after military service, more than 3,000 women veterans have described where they are likely to stay and who they are likely to stay with during periods of unstable housing. The top three choices have stayed consistent over two surveys conducted several years apart:
- “Couch surfing,” also known as doubling up;
- Staying in an unsafe relationship, such as one characterized by intimate partner violence; and
- Sleeping in a vehicle.
Over the past few years as I’ve taken a look into female veteran homelessness in the U.S., it’s never been clear whether the unrealistically low number that gets all-too-frequently cited is the reason why so few people have paid enough attention to this problem. My guess it’s a contributor, and worth correcting, but on the larger stage, women veterans often mention feeling invisible as veterans — and not just when it comes to this issue. When America thinks about its warrior class, it does still tend to think first and foremost about male veterans. Whether we have Hollywood, the media and/or our own lack of curiosity to thank for this — it’s hard to know where to apportion blame. The more important issue is remembering that women serve, and that when they leave the military, they need responsive services that acknowledge their gender, across the board — from healthcare to homelessness.