Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator
United States Air Force veteran Leanna’s living situation is tenuous. She and her four young children have been surviving off of her student loan money, but her income has fallen to almost nothing during the summer break. When I met Leanna in late June, rent was overdue and she was looking for work.
Leanna told me her summer job options are limited because of a back injury she suffered while serving in the Air Force, and the high cost of child care.
“Day care costs $1,000 a month for one kid. There’s no way I can find a summer job that will even cover that,” Leanna told me.
She’s a little over a year away from a degree that will enable her to become a math teacher. After serving her country, Leanna is working toward another career that will benefit future generations.
“People tell me that with my background, I should get a high-paying engineering job. But I’m passionate about teaching. I want to help people,” Leanna said. In addition to being her passion, teaching is one of the few careers that will allow Leanna to be on roughly the same schedule as her children.
Even as she moves toward achieving her goals, Leanna is now finding herself and her children on the verge of homelessness.
I met Leanna at a Veterans Housing Options Group meeting in Renton. Service providers from a variety of agencies—the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, King County Veterans Services, the YWCA and others—told a roomful of homeless and unstably housed veterans about the many programs available to help them.
Each of the 15 or so veterans at the meeting received a packet of information about shelters, transitional housing options, affordable permanent housing, and other resources. It took me a while to begin to wrap my head around all the resources available to veterans; I imagine navigating such programs could be dizzying for someone in crisis. It turns out this is a nationwide challenge: A study by the American Action Forum found that veterans seeking benefits have to navigate as many as 613 forms across 18 agencies.
Fortunately, staff from the various agencies were on hand to talk with the veterans one on one. Leanna connected with staff from Supportive Services for Veteran Families who expected the program could help cover Leanna’s rent until the new school year starts.
Government and non-profit service agencies are doing a lot of good work to support our veterans. Many of the service providers I’ve spoken with are veterans themselves, and all struck me as being genuinely passionate about helping their clients get back on their feet and thrive. Veterans Affairs launched a campaign to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and programs like Supportive Services for Veteran Families provide crucial help, such as money for housing and job training.
Leanna told me she was grateful for the assistance, but she believed that service agencies could do more to support veterans. She’d like to see more programs helping members of the military, especially women, transition from active duty to civilian society.
All exiting members of the military go through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), but veteran homelessness and joblessness rates – as well as surveys of veterans – indicate that the program hasn’t adequately prepared many veterans for civilian life.
Veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population. In 2010, veterans accounted for 10 percent of the total adult population and 16 percent of the homeless adult population, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report released last September.
One major factor contributing to veteran homelessness is challenges finding work. The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001—a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans —was 9.9 percent in 2012, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Within this group, the unemployment rate for men was 9.5 percent, while that of women was was much higher at 12.5 percent. The unemployment rate for nonveterans was 7.9 percent the same year.
Like Leanna, a significant number of veterans return home with disabilities that limit their career options. Nearly 3 in 10 Gulf War-era II veterans report having a service-connected disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many veterans experience barriers transitioning into civilian life, and some become homeless. Between now and Veterans Day, November 11, our “From Soldier to Civilian” blog series will examine barriers that veterans, and women veterans in particular, face as they re-enter civilian society. We’ll also share suggestions from experts—veterans themselves—on making the transition easier.
The need for affordable childcare
Leanna suggests one systemic fix that would help a lot of veterans: increase access to affordable childcare. Service providers and homeless women veterans consistently identify childcare as a top unmet need of homeless women veterans. The high cost of childcare is a common barrier for many jobseekers; we posted a five-part blog series about this problem and policies aimed at fixing it last year.
Leanna had to call in a babysitting favor from a relative to get to the two-hour meeting where she introduced herself to me. She told me the lack of childcare not only creates a barrier to working, but also to accessing VA health care for her back injuries.
“I don’t even go to the VA unless it’s an emergency, because there’s no childcare. What would I do there with my four kids?” she asked.
Leanna added that on the rare occasions when she does go to the VA, she feels out of place.
“People ask me if I’m there to visit someone,” she said.
Perhaps the first step toward helping women veterans is recognizing they exist.
- “The Road to Stability: A discussion about the barriers women veterans face when they come home” is an illuminating report on a panel discussion of women veterans in Washington state who shared their experiences of homelessness. Veterans and service providers engaged in a dialog about solutions. Catholic Community Services, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness and the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs convened the panel in 2011. You can also check out a KING-5 interview with some of the women from the panel.
- “Homeless Female Veterans,” a white paper from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, explains risk factors for homelessness among women veterans, and lists resources available to them.
Are you a veteran who would like to share your story? Send an email to Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator Denise Miller: firstname.lastname@example.org.