Is Your State Ready to Accommodate Women Veterans Who Are Homeless?

Most States Appear to Lack Capacity — or May Be Unaware of Growing Need

You may not realize it, but women veterans are now the fastest-growing demographic of homeless veterans. And that brings us to a question of capacity.

When women veterans become homeless — how ready is your state to meet the need?

Sure, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the agency thought of as primarily responsible to help vets with housing when they become homeless, but VA works through community providers as well, often on a reimbursement basis. So first your community has to have facilities available to house women veterans — who frequently have different needs than their male veteran counterparts. Because of the likelihood of trauma histories from military sexual trauma, and/or their status as single mothers with dependent children, women veterans are very unlikely to want to sleep outside, stay in shelters, or stay in co-ed facilities.

It’s also not a given that all veterans participate in VA’s offerings. Many do not, either through choice or, as is the case for many women veterans years ago, because they are unaware they are eligible for services. As hard as this may be to believe, years ago women veterans were sometimes affirmatively told they were “not veterans” or “not eligible” for services, resulting in a gap that might be as long as decades before they realized they could use VA for health care, housing and other benefits.

A few years ago when I first started delving into this issue, I came across a list of VA’s Grant and Per Diem capacity in each state. I ended up mapping it against the number of women veterans in each state, only to realize how poorly most states seemed to have prepared to house women veterans, with or without their children.

Then as now, Texas, Florida, California, Virginia and Georgia are the top five states by population for women veterans. (Virginia and Georgia also make the top five list for women veterans as a percentage of all the veterans in their states, too.) But as you can see from the above illustration, four of the five key states seem to have very limited capacity to serve women veterans — only California seems like it’s making a solid effort. (You can see the interactive data visualization here.)

Another barrier for women veterans who are at risk for or experiencing homelessness is their truly low visibility as homeless veterans. When America thinks of its warriors, unfortunately it often defaults to thinking of Hollywood portrayals, and this lack of recognition works against women veterans across the board — not just when they become homeless.

For years, when Americans are asked to picture “a homeless veteran,” virtually only one image comes to mind — a scruffy older white male, often Vietnam-era, frequently with chronic mental health or substance use issues, who sleeps outdoors and can be seen panhandling for spare change with a cardboard sign on city streets or at an intersection.

While that picture may at one point have been accurate, there are two problems with it now. One is that it continues to emphasize the most visible type of homelessness — chronic, long-term homelessness which is not the only kind of homelessness — and secondly, it excludes women veterans from the picture, including women veterans with children. To be a homeless veteran does not mean to be alone — part of the new face of veteran homelessness these days is to be a single mother with dependent children in tow.

Well-deserved kudos go to CBS television’s crime drama “NCIS,” whose episode “One Step Forward” in 2018 served as the first accurate portrayal of a woman veteran who was homeless on network television — and she was a single mother!

For years, relying on the very-likely-to-be-inaccurate federal guesstimate of how many women veterans are currently homeless has created the impression that very few are, even though that’s quite unlikely to be the case. Recently, using VA’s own calculations to re-estimate the size of this population has come up with an alternate set of numbers that is much more likely to convey a closer-to-accurate estimate. (You can read about that, here.)

But, with a better sense now of how large the need may be, the question shifts to how well prepared are we to address the needs of women veterans (with or without children) when they become homeless? On a state-by-state basis, what would that actually look like?

We’ve taken a look at it, and the answer is “not good.”

You might want to start with a refresher about how many women veterans there are in your state, how many are living in poverty, and how many are likely to be homeless right now — at the low end and high ends of that range as computed by VA and also via a non-VA estimate that relies more heavily on poverty data for women in each state. That article is here.

Here’s a brief synopsis of what those numbers look like for the top five states for women veterans. Now let’s take a look at capacity to meet those needs.

Here are the VA’s Grant and Per Diem programs per state, using the most recent figures (from a 2011 Government Accounting Office report).

Here are the number of programs that serve women and children.

Here are the maximum number of beds for women at those facilities. (They range from literally zero in multiple states to 707 in California.

Here’s a look at the number of beds reserved for women with physical disabilities (on the left) or mental disabilities (on the right).

Now to get a better sense of the actual impact, let’s express that capacity (choosing maximum beds for women) as a function of even the low end of the women veterans in the state who are likely to be homeless right now. Here’s what that looks like, and it’s alarming.

Notice how low those figures are? Let’s make that a little more apparent.

Here’s a map showing all the states that can accommodate more than one in five (20 percent) of women veterans who are homeless right now.

Here’s a map showing where in the country fewer than 10 percent of the women veterans who are likely to be homeless right now could be accommodated — with or without their children.

And, finally, here’s a map of capacity for the “top five” states for women veterans by population. Apart from California, look how low those numbers are!

If you want to take a look at what the figures are for every state in the country that reported Grant and Per Diem program figures, that’s here. (A snippet of what it looks like is directly above, but in the “live” version you can sort by any column, etc.)

A few years ago, as part of my grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation to create a multimedia reporting project on female veteran homelessness, I had a chance to build a website of state-specific resources for women veterans experiencing homelessness. I checked around first to see if such a website existed or was in the works, and when none was proceeded to build one. That gave me a chance to see how very few programs attempting to house homeless women veterans and/or their children were actually out there. In fact, many states simply had none. (You can see or add to that directory, here.)

The brief period during which some nonprofits with national reach — such as the YWCA — had considered making women veteran homelessness a real platform or focus seemed to have passed, and yet the need if anything was increasing. Change agents like U.S. Army Reserve Major Jas Boothe, who founded transitional housing program Final Salute, Inc. after seeing the need to accommodate women veterans (including currently serving reservists) and their children have stepped up, but they too see the focus — and the fundraising dollars — predominantly going to offset male veteran homelessness.

Admittedly, VA’s Grant and Per Diem program is only one of the options available for housing women veterans in the communities where they live — but it’s historically been an important and a popular one, and one for which data was available. If you know of other official, government data that speaks to capacity on a state-by-state basis — or even for your own state — about housing women veterans at risk for or currently experiencing homelessness, please get in touch.

Policy implications

  • Be thinking now about what policy changes need to be made to better accommodate women veterans who become homeless, with or without their children.
  • Is there a baseline level of accommodation through housing that women veterans should be able to access, irrespective of what state they’re in?
  • How does your state need to step up to meet this need? How about nonprofits and local communities?
  • Is more education needed so that the average person will be aware that female veteran homelessness is an issue?
  • Or should the emphasis be on providing more responsive housing so that women veterans and/or their children can be accommodated during times of need?
  • If your state is making an effort to house veterans and/or “eradicate veteran homelessness,” can you expand the definition to see how that affects women veterans as well?
  • Can you tie percentage of accommodations available to women veterans when they’re homeless, not just to male veterans — maybe according to the percentage they are of veterans in the state? So a state where women veterans make up 10 percent of the veteran population would have a minimum of 10 percent of the accommodations geared to women veterans.
  • Can someone create a public service campaign that raises the profile of women veterans generally as a growing percentage of the veteran population — and by so doing increase awareness of multiple issues that affect women veterans as their own population, not just homelessness but homelessness too might benefit from that approach.
  • Who in your community, nonprofit arena or legislature needs to become more aware of women veterans as a unique population when it comes to homelessness?
  • When Hollywood and the media tell veterans’ stories — can you make sure they give weight to women veterans’ experiences too? In homelessness, as with other dimensions of the female veteran experience, they deserve a voice as well.
  • And of course, feel free to add your own questions to this list.

Focused on using data as a tool in research & policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad. Ph.D. student.

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