Female Vets Fight Personal Wars of Homelessness, Abuse

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NORFOLK, Va. -- It's sad to see how many homeless veterans there are in the United States. But now, the number of female veterans without permanent housing is on the rise as well.

Janice Ramirez, who lives in the military town of Norfolk, Va., once treated the wounds of fellow soldiers when she served as a nurse in the United States Army.

After 17 years, she left the military due to an injury.

But when she started civilian life again, Ramirez said she couldn't find a steady job and struggled to pay rent. Before long, she was without a place to live.

"I have slept wherever I could. Slept in shelters, on the floor, in a car, an abandoned house," she told CBN News.

And Ramirez's story is not unique.

No Longer a 'Men Only' Problem

After a stint in the military, Sharisha Hatchett-Lewis said her life became a battlefield of domestic violence. She and her son were eventually driven from their home. Lewis then started living out of her car, which she said she often parked at shopping centers.

"You don't sleep well in a car not knowing who's going to come up to the car, who's going to hurt you or try to find you, and [trying to] find somewhere that's well lit," she recalled. "You have to sleep with one eye open."

Once a problem mostly for male veterans, homelessness and economic struggles are escalating among female veterans -- whose numbers have grown during the past decade of U.S. wars, while resources for them haven't kept up.

**Share your thoughts on the problems facing female veterans on the Lady Vets Haven Facebook page.

"It is on the rise," said Pete Dougherty who oversees homeless programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"About 8 percent of veterans who are sheltered or identified as homeless are female," he added.

Dougherty said female veterans face a growing list of problems.

"It's about a lack of employment. It's in many cases substance use or a mental illness," he explained.

"What we know about recently returning veterans is that they seem to have a much higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder," Dougherty said.

Perhaps the biggest issue veterans face is not enough temporary housing or shelter.

"We have about 14,000 current transitional housing beds for veterans, male and female," Dougherty said.

A Safe Haven

Navy reservist Jackie Campbell has seen firsthand the problems facing female veterans in her community.

As a Christian, she felt compelled to do something to address the issues they face. So this year, she opened a shelter for homeless female veterans called "Lady Vets Haven."

The home serves as a clean and safe environment for female veterans. Women are invited to stay as long as they need to and are offered a variety of services such as job counseling, group and individual counseling and spiritual encouragement.

The women are charged a discounted rent rate.

"There's just no reason, especially someone that's served our country, gave their life for our country ... shouldn't have to be sleeping outside," Campbell told CBN News.

Dr. Priscilla Hankins is a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital in Hampton, Va. She said female veterans face the same stresses as male veerans. But she said they also have gender-specific issues that make them more susceptible to homelessness.

"Being single parents with small children and the domestic violence issue is a significant factor and unemployment. All these coming together," Hankins explained.

She added that military sexual trauma may also play a role.

Military Sexual Trauma

A new report from the VA Office of the Inspector General found bedrooms and bathrooms in temporary VA shelters for vets with no locks, poorly lit hallways and women housed in facilities approved for men only. Also, nearly a third of the 26 facilities reviewed didn't have adequate safety precautions.

One female veteran and her 18-month-old son were placed in the same facility as a male veteran who was a registered sex offender.

"About 90 percent of our military sexual trauma victims are females," Hankins said.

"That would certainly cause some challenges for women coming into a male-dominated setting to seek treatment when they have been traumatized by sexual trauma," she added.

Doughterty said the Department of Veterans Affairs has made some progress in the area of transitional housing for veterans.

For example, the VA teamed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing vouchers for veterans.

The program is particularly popular among women and has housed tens of thousands of veterans and their families. Still, the program is geared toward veterans who are most in need and is generally limited to those facing substance abuse, medical or mental health problems.

Another program offers grant and per diem money to non-profit and community organizations to house veterans. But current law doesn't allow the VA to reimburse providers for housing children, creating a financial disincentive to do so.

A Government Accountability Office report also revealed more than 60 percent of the grant and per diem programs surveyed that serve homeless women don't house children.

Need for a Smooth Transition

Veterans want the Department of Veterans Affairs to make their transition from military to civilian life a lot smoother.

"They do give you a little bit of information during the exit process, but not enough for you to at least try and become a civilian and re-stabilize," Lewis said.

Dougherty admitted there is more the VA can and should do.

"We do have to do a much better job in that transition as service members are coming out," he said.

Meanwhile, places like "Lady Vets Haven" make a difference one veteran at a time.

And for veterans like Ramirez, the home is an answer to prayer.

"I walked in. I was like, 'Wow!'" she said. "It was like a blessing, like walking into a true blessing."

*Original post on May 29, 2012.

Related Links:

Lady Vets Haven

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.