In Their Own Words: Homeless Female Veterans Share Their Stories

Risk of homelessness for recent veterans, particularly women who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan is increasing. Of the estimated 107,000 currently homeless veterans, 7,000 are female veterans. Female veterans have four times greater risk of homelessness compared to their civilian counterparts. Kathleen Guarino shares findings from a listening tour to understand the experiences and needs of female veterans experiencing homelessness and service providers in San Diego County.

The number of women in the military – both active duty and veteran populations – is growing rapidly. They face unusual challenges because of their military experiences and for many, multiple roles as breadwinner, parent, and spouse. Often their return to civilian life is difficult. Of the estimated 107,000 currently homeless veterans, 7,000 are female veterans.(United States Department of Veterans Affairs). Female veterans have four times greater risk of homelessness compared to their civilian counterparts.

What do we know about female veterans experiencing homelessness? What challenges do these women face? How can service providers best meet the needs of this ever-growing population and reduce their risks of homelessness?

To address the growing issue of homelessness among female veterans and the need for clarity regarding the service needs of this population, The National Center partnered with the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, Region IX to conduct three listening sessions with homeless female veterans and one session with providers serving veterans in San Diego County.

What We Learned

Female veterans do not always self-identify. Female veterans often did not view themselves as “veterans,” which prevented them from accessing services that they were eligible for based on their military service. The following are a few of the comments we heard:

“When you think veteran – you don’t think of women. As much as society is trying to change, it’s still a man’s world.”

“I never thought of myself as a veteran even though I served. I didn’t think those words applied to me.”

“I thought veteran meant you had been in combat. …If in church, on veteran’s day, I don’t want to stand up. I don’t want to raise my hand. It just doesn’t seem right to me.”

Providers also noted that many women did not identify their military experiences as part of what they are dealing with, and therefore, do not seek out any veteran-related services. One homeless program director put it this way, “the segment of the population we serve is so focused on day to day survival that being a veteran may not be part of their identity but it is part of their history.” Women saw themselves as wives, mothers, and survivors of addiction and violence. However, their lack of connection with their veteran status meant that they were less likely to be aware of and access the benefits and resources that they earned based on their time in the military.

Female veterans who are homeless have significant histories of trauma. Research suggests that 81-93% of female veterans have been exposed to some type of trauma; significantly higher rates than the civilian population (Zinzow et al., 2007). The prevalence of trauma was born out in discussions with female veterans who participated in the listening sessions. The women described significant histories of trauma that included: childhood abuse, domestic violence, combat-related stress, military sexual trauma, and the loss of social supports and stable housing.

A common theme across listening sessions involved the stress associated with being a female service member in a predominately male-oriented military culture where power imbalances and harassment and sexual assault were prevalent. The women used phrases such as “the boy’s network” and a “male-dominated world” to describe the military culture. Most of the women felt that in the military there is “a lot more pressure on women” and women have to work “twice as hard as men.”

Another woman explained, “The stress of surviving as a woman in the military is its own type of trauma.” The prevalence of military sexual trauma and its impact was pronounced throughout the listening sessions, as one woman stated, “I heard that they want to say PTSD is only combat-related. What about those raped in the military? . . . Trauma is trauma.”

In addition to military trauma, listening session participants struggled with their own experiences of violence and trauma in childhood and adulthood. As one participant explained, “We all joined the military to get away from our families.” Another stated, “I joined the military to get away from abuse as a child,” and another shared, “I grew up with low self-esteem and depression.” Many of the participants were also survivors of domestic violence that resulted in later difficulties. One woman commented, “Domestic violence starts the downward spiral . . . you end up homeless and afraid.” Others echoed similar comments in the sessions. “When I got into domestic violence – brutal from the very beginning – I didn’t know how to deal with it, get out of it, or handle it at all." Another woman explained, “I filled my pockets in the drug world, trying to get out of this relationship I was in.”

Exposure to trauma impacts all aspects of daily functioning. Repeated experiences of trauma have a significant impact on female veterans’ physical and mental health, coping skills, and ability to access supports and maintain stable employment and housing. For most women in the listening sessions, the combination of violence in adulthood and childhood trauma resulted in struggles with addiction that contributed to their homelessness.

Traumatic experiences in the military had a profound impact on listening session participants. One woman explained “when I was in the navy in 1979, I was raped. I was never treated by the military for anything” and suggested “maybe I have problems now because I didn’t address the issue originally.” Another woman shared, “[I had] PTSD through circumstances in the military. [The] last few years of my marriage were very mentally abusing . . . left me with scars, depression. Mental abuse was like a hole that I couldn’t get out of. Physical heals, the mental does not.”

Several of these women linked their military service to subsequent struggles with substance abuse. They described the frequent use of alcohol while in the military. One woman shared, “I didn’t drink a lot before, but within a few months I went to mandatory rehab.” Military sexual trauma was another source of stress connected to substance use: “There was a lot of sexual harassment and sexual assault that probably factored into my drinking more. I think my homelessness came from my poor choices because of my drinking.”

The presence of mental health issues prior to entering the military adds another layer of trauma that further complicates their current situation. One participant identified untreated mental illness as a factor in her homelessness. “I used and numbed, became suicidal [and] did not know where to go or how to get help.” Another shared, “I fight addiction, I’m on psych meds – so mine has been a combination of things.”

The demand for self-reliance among women in the military and the pressure to prove that one is strong and capable creates a culture where seeking services is seen as a sign of weakness, further contributing to the risk of homelessness. As one participant said, “The veterans are probably the last ones to go and ask for help.” Providers agreed that women veterans are “socialized not to seek help.” They commented that reporting military sexual trauma is “particularly difficult to reach out and get help for. You don’t tell.”

Services that are trauma-informed and tailored to female veterans are minimal. Participants in all listening sessions agreed that there are very few services available for women veterans in general and even fewer for women veterans experiencing homelessness. As one woman expressed, “We’re the forgotten veterans.” One participant noted, “there seems to be so much more out there in the way of programs, shelters, sobriety homes – so much more for men,” and another expressed, “A vet’s a vet – they should have things for everyone.” The women expressed an overall need for more services and programs for women and more spaces for women within existing programs. Women were looking for programs that offered “culturally competent” service provision. They wanted services designed with an understanding of and an ability to meet the unique needs of women who are also veterans and experiencing homelessness. As one participant summarized, “we need networking groups and safe places with the right people to direct us down the pathways we want to go.”

Participants also agreed that there is little outreach and communication about the few available services and programs. Across sessions, women said that they were unaware of available services for women veterans and/or confused regarding their eligibility for services. Community-based service providers also expressed confusion regarding how to best support women veterans within their programs. There was a lack of communication between community-based and veteran-specific service providers such as the VA or Vet Centers regarding available services. Providers seemed unaware of what others in the area were doing to serve this population as well as the resources that are available through the VA and Vet Centers. They acknowledged the need for more and improved outreach and additional input from women veterans about their specific needs and experiences.

Next Steps

The connection between homelessness and trauma among female veterans underscores the need for specific programming for these veterans and has led to an urgency to adapt services to account for traumatic experiences. In response to this need, and with support from the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, Region IX, The National Center on Family Homelessness (The National Center) created Providing Trauma-Informed Care to Female Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Community-Based Organizations to offer homeless service providers with practical knowledge and concrete guidelines for how to modify their practices in order to enhance homeless female veterans’ ability to re-establish stability and success.

The Guide is soon to be released and will be available on-line.

Publication Date: 
Newton Centre, MA, USA