Homeless Women Vets: No Housing and Lack of Accountability

As the Women Veterans Outreach Coordinator at the National Veterans Foundation, I work with many veterans who are struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, but one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of my work is helping young vets who are homeless.  There are so many, and I cannot  believe the numbers of veterans, and particularly women veterans, who are living in their cars.

One young Army vet, Rebecca, is living in her car in a parking lot. She is in school, attending every day, but homeless. She had to leave her infant with family when her unit deployed to Iraq. Her return home a year later did not go smoothly. When we found her, none of her friends or family knew she was living in her car. She visits her child in the mornings and evenings and spends the day in classes.

If anyone had a good chance of getting transitional housing, it would have been Rebecca.  She got the multi-agency full-court press, to which most veterans do not have access. Almost all of our staff was involved, several agencies were part of the process, and, in the end, we were unable to get her off the streets, due to  a lack of safe housing anywhere near where her child and school were located that would accept HUD-VASH housing vouchers.  That’s in a city the size of Los Angeles.

Rebecca’s story is important, because of all the time, resources and people that got involved in getting her placed in housing.   But her situation is not unique.

Even with the many initiatives to end homelessness and hefty increases in funding, there are still few places for transitional housing and almost no existing safe, affordable housing available in LA County.  One of our partner agencies is the only privately funded transitional home for women veterans and even their residents have the same struggles. There is every reason to expect the same to be true in other large urban areas throughout the U.S. that have concentrations of recent veterans.

One of the places the VA is referring veteran families for transitional housing in LA is a local facility for previously incarcerated and mentally ill individuals.  I have visited this place and it is seriously scary.  If I had a choice of spending a week there, alone or with my child, or spending it in my car, I would pick my car too.  This is unacceptable for women who served and sacrificed for their country.  They deserve better.

Every social worker and HUD-VASH rep sending our veterans to these kinds of locations should have to spend a week there and see how safe they feel.

Property owners’ unwillingness to rent to veterans who are receiving housing assistance is a huge part of the problem and it needs a spotlight.  No amount of new programs for homeless vets can make safe, affordable housing materialize. Attitudes need to be changed.

Another big part of the problem is the veteran agency game of “pass the buck.”  There are very few programs in Los Angeles where a service provider will take on a veteran case and manage their situation completely until they are safe in a stable home.  The more common approach is to listen to their story and refer them to another agency.  When they don’t fit neatly into whatever program that agency provides, that program staff member again shifts the responsibility to another agency.

There are about three other outreach coordinators (two of them are volunteers)  helping vets in Southern CA that I know of that are taking ownership of their clients’ well-being, doing the necessary legwork, helping them through all the many programs, with all the paperwork, and helping these women overcome the obstacles and red tape.  I have one contact in Los Angeles, one in Long Beach and one in Riverside who are doing what needs to be done.  If I refer a vet to them, I know the vet will have a chance at getting the help they need.

The process works if you have the right people who are willing to do what it takes.

Otherwise, there are hundreds of women vets on the streets in LA who are on their own, navigating a complicated, fractured system without proper assistance.

It is 100 percent wrong.

Kristine Hesse

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