By Jim Vines
Even as the Pentagon lifts the ban on women in combat roles, returning servicewomen are facing a battlefield of a different kind. They are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, an often invisible group bouncing between sofa and air mattress, overnighting in public storage lockers, living in cars and learning to park inconspicuously on the outskirts of shopping centers to avoid the violence of the streets.
While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well paying jobs. But a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists conclude, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.
In a recent interview by The New York Times, more than a dozen female veterans said that they had been sexually assaulted in the service, and another said that she had been stalked. Additionally many women entered the military to escape family conflict and abuse.
Of 141,000 veterans nationwide who spent at least one night in a shelter in 2011, nearly 10 percent were women, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, up from 7.5 percent in 2009. Returning veterans face a Catch-22. Congress authorized the VA to take care of them, but not their families. Women wait an average of four months to secure stable housing, leaving those with children at higher risk for homelessness. More than 60 percent of transitional housing programs receiving grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs do not accept children, or restrict their age and number, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. The lack of jobs for female veterans also contributes to homelessness.