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Hope for Homeless Women Veterans

March/April 2010 VAnguard - Women Veterans Health Program

Last time, House the Homeless blog looked at the situation of women veterans who somehow find themselves without any place to live, which is something for America to really hang its head in shame about. To make it worse, women vets are confronted by a different set of risks and needs than the ones that male vets have to contend with.

One of the female vets interviewed by Eric Tucker and Kristin M. Hall for the Associated Press fell into a pattern of heavy drinking because of the culture of her particular branch of service. A diabetic Navy veteran staying in a typical inner-city shelter had the hypodermic needles stolen, that she used for insulin injections. More than half of the programs that serve homeless women in general do not offer housing for children.

For CBN News, Charlene Israel learned:

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… 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.

But the news isn’t all bad. There is a special government office whose job is to assist veteran families that are experiencing homelessness who are at risk. Its name matches its description, Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). Funding actually goes to private nonprofit groups and consumer co-ops, who provide services such as outreach, case management, and assistance in obtaining benefits from the Veterans Administration and other agencies.

The goal is to get these veteran families hooked up with health care, financial planning, viable transportation, child care for people looking for jobs or lucky enough to find them, help with their legal problems and, of course, help with getting a roof over their heads. As its literature describes, SSVF also authorizes its grantees to pass payment along to third parties like landlords, moving companies, and utilities, if it looks like the family will be able to start rowing its own boat pretty soon.

Jackie Campbell, a Navy reservist who knows what it’s like to be homeless, opened a transitional housing facility where the rent is as low as possible. The “Lady Vets Haven” has a Facebook page and describes itself thusly:

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.

Another place founded by a veteran whose personal experience included a spell of homelessness, is Final Salute in Fairfax, Virginia. Army Captain Jasmine Boothe came to the conclusion that “No one is really looking out for women veterans,” as she told reporter Kali Schumitz. Boothe, a single mother, was the victim of both Hurricane Katrina and cancer.

Schumitz tells us:

The biggest obstacle facing the thousands of homeless female veterans, as compared to male veterans, is most of the housing programs established for veterans do not allow children.

The large house is shared among five female veterans, some with children, at a cost of $65,000 per year. Surprisingly, there are only about 20 women on the waiting list for this “starting-over” situation. But maybe the administrators limit the waiting list, in order not to instill false hope in too many women who actually don’t have a chance of getting in any time soon.

Planning for the Webb House in Gary, Indiana, began back in 2009. There are other Webb Houses in nearby counties, but the one in Gary is actually a renovated apartment.

The facility was dedicated to local hero Jeanette Winters, the first female Marine fatality of the Afghanistan war. The staff of Webb House, Inc. works with the VA and Disabled American Veterans to aid with not only housing, but with the psychological needs of veterans. They even helped to establish a special veterans’ court for those whose scrapes with the law are complicated by PTSD or other problems particular to vets.

A very complete picture of federal services for those who served is found in a General Accounting Office report titled “Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing,” available as a PDF download. But we must remember: Even if we search and find every female veteran and are able to provide the best of all of these services, if they end up in jobs that pay less than a living wage they will only end up swelling the ranks of the homeless.

All people experiencing homelessness are at risk for adverse events that housed people can’t even imagine. In Austin, the current important project is a shelter for women. Please learn more and do what you can, starting with this page.

Reactions?

Source: “More women vets are homeless, but housing scarce,” Boston.com, 04/08/12
Source: “Female Vets Fight Personal Wars of Homelessness, Abuse,” CBN.com, 05/29/12
Source: “Supportive Services for Veteran Families,” VA.gov, 2012
Source: “Final Salute offers housing to homeless female veterans,” The Washington Post, 05/15/12
Source: “Webb House, Inc. to participate in South Shore Air Show’s charity event ,” NWITimes, 06/22/12
Source: “Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housin,” (PDF), GAO.gov, December 2011
Image by MichiganMoves (Debra Drummond), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness

Vietnam Women's MemorialIn January of this year, it was widely reported that in the 2006-2010 period, the number of female veterans experiencing homelessness had more than doubled. The jump was from 1,380 to 3,328. One thing to remember about this number is, it doesn’t count the female vets in shelters. But a shelter is for emergency and transition, not for permanent residence. Technically, those women are homeless too.

And, of course, the number only includes individuals who had actual contact with the VA. Nobody knows how many are constrained, by inner or outer circumstances, from asking the government for anything. It is a truism of the field of social work, that the people who most need help are often the last ones to seek it.

The numbers that express the need are difficult to gather accurately, and there is always a time lag between conditions when the count is made and the day when the results are collated and published. It is even said (by the General Accounting Office, or GAO) that the true picture is difficult to assess because of a lack of coordination between the VA and the department of Housing and Urban Development. A PDF file of the GAO’s December 2011 report, “Homeless Women Veterans,” is downloadable here.

A recent New York Times editorial said:

Lack of information is part of the problem. The report said that neither the V.A. nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development collects sufficiently detailed information about homeless female veterans, making it harder to plan effective programs, allocate money and track progress.

There are two sides to that particular problem, of course. Those named activities all come under the heading of “bureaucracy,” more layers of it, and more money going for offices, computers, software, clerks, and paper clips. Meaning, ultimately, less money for the actual troops on the ground — the military veterans who can’t find a place to sleep in their native land.

The administration/action ratio of any nonprofit corporation is what people want to know before they donate to it. If the organization is paying more than 50% of its income to keep itself running, a red flag goes up. Hopefully, some government bureaucracy is keeping an eye on other government bureaucracies, making sure they adhere to some kind of standard.

The same editorial describes the discouraging parts of the December document and another:

The report found that the V.A. sometimes failed to refer homeless women to short-term housing while they waited for housing vouchers. It noted that the agency lacked safety standards for shelter providers, even though many women said they feared sexual harassment and assault. And some shelters discriminated against homeless mothers by limiting the age or number of children they take.

A report in March by the V.A. inspector general echoed these concerns, saying some shelters lacked basic protections like working locks and separate floors for men and women. The V.A.’s inattention to safety and privacy is especially troubling because rates of sexual trauma and domestic violence tend to be high among homeless female veterans.

Experts see many reasons for the increase in female veteran homelessness: the general unraveling of the social safety net, the outsourcing of jobs overseas, the gentrification of central urban areas with the consequent loss of affordable housing. Add to that the increase of domestic violence. As Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, a Vietnam veteran himself, phrases it:

Female veterans face all the same economic challenges as the men AND so much more… The level of sexual abuse for women in the military is appalling. So these women potentially have one cause for PTSD even before their life unravels and they end up on the streets.

That’s a big problem, and one that nobody much wants to face. There are women veterans who not only endured sexual abuse while in service, but also suffered from the indifference or hostility of the military establishment when they tried to get justice. If such a woman later becomes homeless, it’s easy to see why she would be reluctant to approach the government for help.

Women veterans face a different set of risks and needs than male vets, and it’s all part of a larger issue. Whether they are former military personnel or perpetual civilians, homeless women are even more vulnerable than homeless men. We were reminded again of this in June, when Valerie Godoy was murdered in Texas. The people of Austin have responded by proposing the creation of a new and much-needed women’s shelter. Please sign the petition!

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Women Veterans” (PDF), GAO.gov, December 2011
Source: “Homelessness Among Female Veterans,” The New York Times, 04/17/12
Image by cliff1066, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homelessness and Women’s Shelters

homeless womanSo many people are experiencing homelessness, it has become expedient and necessary to divide them into subsets. The fastest-growing category of homeless people is now women, and that includes women with children.

For practical purposes, those are two populations with very different needs, so already a barrier against easy solutions is thrown up. When it’s mother plus children, a facility needs safety plugs in the wall sockets, and a secure outdoor play area, and other amenities that single adult women do not require.

Intuitively, it would seem that adult women on their own would be easier to house. But there are other considerations. The single grownup female might fall into one or more of the other subsets: chronically ill, chronically homeless, mentally disabled, or alcoholic, to name just a few. So much care is needed.

Los Angeles made a small (relative to the need) but meaningful step with the creation of the Downtown Women’s Center, whose beginnings are described by Daniel B. Wood:

Founding director Jill Halverson became friends with a mentally ill, destitute woman and realized that in 1978, L.A.’s skid row was a man’s world and women had no place to turn. She rented a storefront and opened the city’s first day center for women, later spending her life savings on a building to permanently house 47.

A day center offers basic services like showers, clothes washers and dryers, phones, a mailing address, job counseling, and help with health problems. This particular women’s center teaches computer literacy. The DWC even offers groups where women can express themselves through art, prose, and poetry, activities which often lead to emotional catharsis, self-awareness, and psychological empowerment.

With the help of a $13 million contribution from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a former shoe company building was renovated into “71 brand-new fully furnished residences, artfully appointed, with high ceilings and windows, kitchenettes, and art-adorned bathrooms.” Their aim is to help 80 chronically homeless women at a time to make the transition into permanent supportive housing. The residents, who receive Social Security or disability payments, are charged one-third of their income.

Many people are surprised to find that such institutions are extremely cost-effective. Wood says:

Nationally, the average daily cost of permanent homeless housing is $30 a day per person, compared with $1,400 a day in a hospital, $65 in a mental institution, and $129 in a state prison.

Some homeless women are spooked by the very idea of seeking an institutional bed, especially in a mixed shelter. The idea of spending the night where so many men are gathered together is frightening. You hear stories you just don’t want to believe — a church shelter where the pastor in charge raped homeless women, and one in Georgia that made news last year by turning away women they believed were gay. But the streets are treacherous, and so are the camps. It’s easy for a homeless woman to find herself in yet another subset, namely, crime victim.

Last month in Austin, Texas, Valerie Godoy was murdered. Andrea Ball looked into the local situation, speaking with many sources including Sharon Lowe of the Foundation for the Homeless, who said:

We can serve about 20 percent of the people who contact us.

That 20% means, in other words, that four out of five don’t get help. The Salvation Army has a waiting list, and other local facilities are always full. The shortage of beds, causing women to routinely be turned away, is confirmed by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who adds that after several rejections, some homeless women give up on trying to apply for a safe place to sleep. He is quoted in Ball’s article:

We’re constantly hearing from women who are being beaten or raped. No woman should be subjected to this. We need to get them off the streets now. There should be immediate emergency shelter upon request.

More than 2,700 people have signed the petition, on paper and online, demanding an emergency shelter for women in Austin. Please visit the page and become one of them.

Why should a shelter be named after Valerie Godoy? Because she was a regular person who has probably made some ill-considered decisions and bad choices along the way — as 99% of women do, every now and then. She got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by a very wrong person or persons. The same could be said of Princess Diana. Even though neither of them can be called typical, still by some alchemical process, both the royal celebrity and the street dweller represent Everywoman in this way.

To be female is to be vulnerable. To be a very young or a very old female is even more risky. Both fame and obscurity can expose a woman to the danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so can being a normal, average American.

Reactions?

Source: “Homelessness Besets More Women. How to Respond?,” CSMonitor.com, 12/20/10
Source: “More shelter space for homeless women needed, local advocates say,” Statesman.com, 07/13/12
Image by Quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Three Kinds of Homeless

Lou-&-AndyThe subject of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by novelist George Orwell is about poverty in the late 1920s. For the poor, the fabled Roaring Twenties were dismal. Orwell came from an impoverished upper-class English family. The homelessness he experienced and described in his books may not have been strictly unavoidable. Even though a young man was expected to make his own way in the world, this young man’s parents would always have rescued him to the farthest extent of their ability.

But Orwell always wanted to know how the poor lived. He was never one to turn a blind eye to injustice, or to take the mass media’s word for anything. It was partly in the spirit of investigative journalism that he experienced homelessness and a tenuous hold on survival at the very fringes of society. James Wood says:

Even when he was working as a journalist in London, [Orwell] lived simply, without much luxury. There is a religious dimension to this, almost — a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background.

Like a war correspondent, he signed up for discomfort and danger. (Later on, he did actually participate in and write about a war, the one that idealists of his era volunteered for.) In Paris, he competed in the desperate scramble for work, showing up at a designated corner, hoping to be chosen for a miserable day’s employment. He took part in the exhausting life of the lowest-status drudges in great hotels and restaurants, working in 100-degree heat through 18-hour days, for less than enough to get by on.

In London, he became familiar with the free shelters, called “spikes,” where a man could only stay once per month. This rule kept all the tramps in constant rotation, walking from shelter to shelter, quickly burning any calories they might have gained from the dreadful food. In their waking hours, the homeless were compelled to stay upright and in motion, and in the hours of rest they were confined in prison-like conditions, to cope with the stark boredom of enforced immobility and idleness.

Orwell stayed in the lowest grade of private lodging houses, government shelters, and charity facilities run by religious groups. He learned about the hassle and humiliation of pawning one’s few shabby belongings. He learned about the choice between washing in bathwater already used by a dozen people, or not washing at all. He learned about the smells, the filth, the frustration, the shunning, the major disasters and minor inconveniences, and the need to always watch your back because not all the other tramps are as honest and decent as you are. On the other hand, he wrote:

I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny…

Author Michael Ventura writes:

True adventurers learn, eventually, that anything can be an adventure if you live with an adventurer’s heart and your life is not a lie. But I was a greedy boy. I wanted my adventure to look like an adventure.

Ventura hit the streets very young, and somehow landed in another state, with a dysfunctional family who accepted him. He learned at a very tender age that money can’t insulate anyone from unhappiness, and also that “normal” is nowhere to be found. Whether or not a child really, truly, technically has a choice about running away from home is not for us to judge. For this child, the place he found was better than the one he had left behind, and certainly better than homelessness. He writes:

Strangers took me in. I wasn’t grateful. I felt no loyalty. They were not my kind. But I’d been on the street, alone, and I didn’t want to go back to that… I had been uprooted at age 13. By age 15, I sensed vaguely that I would never be, or feel, rooted again… If the world is a shooting gallery – and it is – I wanted to be a moving target.

If Thomas Kinkade was the “painter of light,” T. Coraghessan Boyle is the writer of heartbreak. His novel The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, glows with the kind of compassion found in Bruce Springsteen‘s lyrics. It’s about people who camp in a ravine, in need so abject that a toothbrush is an unthinkable luxury. It’s about undocumented immigration, or at least that’s the aspect most readers and critics latched onto. Scott Spencer says of the main characters:

Candido and America are part of California’s unacknowledged work force, cogs in the vast human machine that does the state’s brute labor and without whom… the state could probably not survive. Mr. Boyle is first-rate in capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society… “You didn’t ask questions. You got in the back of the truck and you went where they took you.”

Mainly, the book is about grinding, abysmal poverty, about the desperate willingness to work when there is no work to do. About being grievously injured when it’s impossible to take the risk of asking for medical care. Being victimized and exploited by people from your own land who are just as poor as you. The particular pain of being around food when none of it is for you. The pain of watching your wife go off in a car with an ugly stranger who hires her to use a toxic chemical that will affect your unborn child, and then cheats her on the pay. Of being hated for no better reason than that you have the nerve to exist and draw breath on the planet. Of being a husband or father or wife or mother who can’t provide. As Michael Ventura says,

If you’re the parent, the caring parent, the shame and guilt damn near kill you – you feel it’s your fault even when you’re caught in an economic storm not remotely of your making.

There are many facets to the larger condition of experiencing homelessness. For a runaway teen, some authority figure might question whether she or he really, really had a choice — but who is wise enough to second-guess a decision of that magnitude for someone else? For young journalist George Orwell, sure, he could have stayed home mooching off his parents. On the other hand, given his burning sense of injustice and his drive to learn about how the poor lived and his mission to convey the truth to a prosperous, complacent upper class, he didn’t have a choice.

Once the choice has been made to come north, the couple from Mexico in Boyle’s novel really don’t have any choice but to camp outdoors. Try as they might, and they do try heroically, things just don’t work out for them, and their connection with the rest of the undocumented alien community is so tenuous, they’re unable to network and attempt to get indoors somehow that way. There may be as many kinds of homelessness as there are individuals, and judging their worthiness and whether they are “deserving” of help is a job a little bit bigger than most of us fallible humans are capable of taking on. The one thing we know for sure is that they need help.

There are many different kinds of homelessness. As today’s thought experiment, let’s consider how many of them can be helped by the Homeless Protected Class Resolution and the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” NewYorker.com, 04/30/09
Source: “Letters at 3AM: ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’,” AustinChronicle.com, 06/29/12
Source: “The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle,” NYTimes.com, 09/03/95
Source: “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow,” AustinChronicle.com, 02/26/10
Image by TheeErin, used under its Creative Commons license.

 

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Past Time For a Raise

Paper WorkersThe Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012 (H.R. 5901) is a piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. Its object is to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour, an amount that may sound frightening to businesses, but apparently they do manage to adjust. Jackson points out that no job loss has been shown to result from reasonable increases in the minimum wage.

The amount is only one of the bill’s four prongs. The raise would happen immediately, or what passes for immediately in public life, two months after the enactment of the legislation. Then, after a year, the minimum wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. And there is a special provision for people like restaurant workers:

For workers earning their living on the basis of tips, the cash wage paid to such an employee is to be 70% of the minimum wage when the law takes effect, but in no case less than $5.50 an hour, adjusted annually as necessary thereafter.

Jackson notes that states and communities can always raise the minimum wage in their area, but it doesn’t happen very often. Ten states, he tells us, have exercised their autonomy by indexing the minimum wage to inflation, so that’s a good sign. And 70% of the American people, according to a recent poll, believe the minimum wage needs to be higher.

On the right-hand side of the Time for a Raise page is an impressive list of representatives who are co-sponsors. The information gives specifics on the position of organizations and public figures whose opinions about the minimum wage are often sought out:

The AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, civil rights organizations, Ralph Nader, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and many others have all supported raising it and indexing it. Even Rick Santorum (until recently) and Mitt Romney believed in raising the minimum wage and Mr. Romney wanted to index it to inflation.

For encouraging him to introduce the legislation, Jackson extends special appreciation and thanks to Nader. In his argument for the raising the minimum wage, Jackson (like many others) references the unfairness of the huge gap between compensation for executives and workers. CEOs and all those other “Os” could help a lot by taking voluntary pay cuts.

As House the Homeless blog has often discussed, the Universal Living Wage (ULW), as written up by Richard R. Troxell, shares a similar motivation, although it takes a different approach. The ULW accomplishes the same benefits, and adds more. It doesn’t take a sociology professor or an economist to recognize that the cost of living is different in different places around the United States. To speak of “the economy” is misleading, because we are a nation of at least 1,000 economies. One size does not fit all. Richard says:

Raising the FMW to $10.00 an hour will not get one minimum wage worker off the streets of Washington DC the day it becomes law-far from it. At the same time, $10.00 an hour will seriously hurt small business in rural America.

Harm to small businesses can be reduced by costing them money only in communities where the economy can handle it. Harm can also be reduced by planning for change to take place over a 10-year period. If the increase is eased into, businesses will know what to expect and be able to budget for it. Richard asks:

What’s wrong with spreading out the solution of this problem over 10 years if it took 50 years for it to be created? Especially, if in the end, it solves the Wage Issue Problem for all time and ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will finally be able to afford basic: food, clothing and shelter, (including utilities) wherever that work is done throughout the United States… Remember, minimum wage jobs are the last bastion of purely American jobs. These jobs and these workers cannot be outsourced. Our workers deserve better and our employers deserve to be respected.

By a not-so-strange coincidence, Ralph Nader has also sat down with Richard to discuss the Universal Living Wage. Back in the day, both men worked for economic justice in the streets of Philadelphia, alongside the esteemed Max Weiner, founder of the Consumer Education and Protective Association (CEPA), and the Consumer Party.

Catching up has been the policy behind the federal minimum wage for far too long. “The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012” is a cute title — one might say a “catchy” title — but, really, is that the best we can aspire to, going backwards nearly half a century? If we always go less than the distance to the goal of exiting poverty, then how long does it take us to reach that goal? The answer is, we never do. The result is a 10,000,000 people pool of economically enslaved full-time workers who remain vulnerable to the disaster of falling into economic homelessness.

And even in the best case, “catching up” would not bring us back to where we were in that golden past. Jackson noted that the proposed increase “doesn’t fully equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968 — which today would be closer to $11 per hour.” Even if “catching up” becomes law, the American worker will not be able to buy as many loaves of bread with an hour’s pay as could be bought for an hour’s wages back in 1968.

Please visit to learn more about the Universal Living Wage and the ways in which you can participate to make it a reality.

Reactions?

Source: “The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012,” timeforaraise.org, 06/06/12
Image by cliff1066, used under its Creative Commons license.