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How can we end homelessness among female veterans?

A four-part approach serves as a call to action for the government and philanthropic groups

Homeless veteran
Roughly 34,000 female veterans are homeless. (Photo/Courtesy of the National Veterans Foundation)

A new report offers a four-pronged approach to address homelessness among female veterans.

Researched by the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families and the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare, the report is a pointed call to action for government organizations, non-governmental agencies and philanthropic entities to collaborate and provide resources to fill the gaps that make these women vulnerable to homelessness.

The four key actions are:

  • Initiate prevention and early intervention efforts.
  • Provide health care/child care support for children of female veterans.
  • Broaden definitions of “veteran” and “homeless,” thereby increasing eligibility for care and benefits.
  • Improve awareness of and dispel myths related to the issue.

The opportunity to end this grave problem is within reach.

Carl Castro

“The opportunity to end this grave problem is within reach through coordinated, collaborative and visionary actions,” said co-author Carl Castro, assistant professor and research director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans, which is part of the USC School of Social Work.

“Though significant progress has been made, too many of our female veterans and their families continue to suffer from homelessness,” the 33-year Army veteran added. “We need a shift in approach — one that directs efforts and resources on preventing the problem. In this case, prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In need of a seismic shift

Roughly 34,000 female veterans are homeless, and many have children who share the burden, according to the report. The authors estimate that Veterans Affairs currently spends approximately $136,000 in services for every homeless veteran — “nearly every penny of it after the veteran has become homeless. Very little attention is paid toward prevention. We need a paradigm shift,” Castro said.

In 2010, the White House Veterans Affairs unveiled a plan to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and although the numbers appear to be decreasing, it has not yet attained that goal.

According to the report, female veterans encounter a series of challenges that put them at risk for homelessness as they transition out of the military into civilian communities. These come atop physical and mental health issues they may have incurred during their military service. They may also have limited transferable career skills and difficulty adjusting to new self-identities in civilian culture.

“Call to Action: Toward Ending Female Veteran Homelessness” grew out of a national roundtable discussion hosted by the Jonas Center in 2014.

An outgrowth of initiatives by the Jonas Center, specifically its Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program, the panel convened health experts, veterans, donors, nonprofits, journalists and businesses to explore solutions to this crucial national issue.

We must protect the women who once protected us.

Darlene Curley

“The Jonas Center considers this to be a critical national issue that all of us, as individuals or as organizations with specific competencies and connections, have a responsibility to address. We must protect the women who once protected us,” said Darlene Curley, executive director of the Jonas Center. “More than a year ago, as we considered appropriate roles for the Jonas Center, it became clear we would be most effective in bringing together various experts who could spur action. This report offers insights gleaned from that first, rich discussion.”

A look at the recommendations

“Homeless female veterans’ challenges are on a continuum of need — and the solution lies in effective engagements at the front end of this continuum,” said Anthony Hassan, clinical professor and director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans, a co-author of the report. “This requires a change in the current system, which provides resources after the individual is already homeless.”

Post-military transition milestones present opportunities for a prevention strategy. The four-pronged approach begins with establishing a “system of prevention” during the transition that clearly identifies those at risk and coordinates among multiple agencies to assist in bridging the move from military to civilian life. Specific recommendations include:

  • Mandate a thorough assessment of each separating service member’s health status.
  • Ensure permanent housing, particularly for those with children.
  • Make a “hard” job offer a primary objective.
  • Assess each departing service member’s social support network to identify gaps.
  • Identify those who are high-risk and continuously evaluate their reintegration status for two to three years following their exit from military service.
  • Consider transition compensation to offset any differential from military compensation.

The report also strongly urges ensuring that female service members with children have adequate resources for essential needs, including health care and education.

Recommendations include:

  • Offer life-skills coaching during the transition phase and following separation from the military.
  • Provide the VA the authority to help meet the health care needs of veterans’ children, either through direct or coordinated care.
  • Identify child care support organizations, especially for single mothers.
  • Monitor veterans’ children to assess possible long-term health and behavioral effects of their parents’ service-related trauma and/or homelessness.

Further, because support for homeless female veterans is often restricted due to various policies (some based on law and others not), the authors advocate for changing the definitions of “veteran” and “homeless”; both are used to determine eligibility for care and benefits. They also call for safer housing provided to this population and for the VA to establish female-focused heath/support centers where they can easily access benefits from the VA, other federal and state agencies, veteran service organizations and nonprofits.

Finally, the report advises improving national awareness of the issue and addressing gaps in research, such as:

  • Conduct national, state and local campaigns to dispel myths of homelessness.
  • Improve the identification and treatment of female service members suffering from sexual trauma.
  • Execute intervention studies and local community needs assessments to identify best housing practices, help target prevention/early intervention efforts, etc.
  • Improve the accuracy of veteran homeless counts and include children in these counts.
  • Help female veterans become more comfortable identifying themselves as veterans so that they can access needed benefits.

“These recommendations are not intended to be ‘take it or leave it.’ One or all may be pursued, and we believe that each stands on its own merit. But most importantly, we will never end homelessness until we focus on prevention, and that must begin while the service member is still on active duty,” Castro said. “Finally, this is not an exhaustive list, and we hope that others will identify more innovative approaches toward ending female veteran homelessness.”

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