The new face of veteran homelessness

Photo by Daniel Bendjy

If you asked the average American this Veterans Day to describe a homeless veteran, you’d probably get a description like this: older white male, Vietnam-era, probably single, often with a drug or alcohol problem.

What you might be surprised to learn is that there’s a new face of veteran homelessness, and it is increasingly young, black and female.

Women today represent roughly 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces and about 19 percent of post-9/11 veterans — a population that is projected to grow. While the number of male veterans has been declining over the past few decades, the number of female veterans has doubled since the 1980s. The Department of Veterans Affairs expects female veterans to number more than 2 million, or close to 10 percent of the veteran population, by 2020.

Researchers have known for years that veterans make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population — as many as one in four. But they’ve never been able to identify a clear link between military service and homelessness. Instead, they’ve pinpointed certain factors, like post-traumatic stress disorder, that increase a veteran’s chances of becoming homeless. Still, the root causes remain largely unclear, especially given the protective factors — such as the world-renowned VA health and benefits system — that military service offers.

But welcome to the new 2014 model, in which the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population appears to be women, many of whom have children. Statistically, female veterans are between two and four times as likely as their civilian counterparts to become homeless, according to recent studies. And if they’re young and black, those chances seem only to rise.

Among these “new” homeless veterans, one risk factor stands out: a past history of sexual trauma — whether before, during or after military service, and sometimes all three. In a survey of the roughly 130,000 homeless veterans who used VA outpatient services in 2010, about 40 percent of the females, and 3 percent of the males, said they’d experienced military sexual trauma (MST). In another study that compared homeless female veterans with housed female veterans, over 50 percent of the homeless population reported experiencing MST — twice the rate of their housed counterparts. Suddenly, trauma appears to be linked to homelessness among female veterans, and MST on top of prior trauma may be an even bigger risk factor.

The homeless have always been hard to count accurately, and homeless veterans are no exception. One prominent female veteran who was homeless for years after suffering MST during her Army career said the problem is compounded because “it’s hard to count women who don’t want to be found.” As researchers learn more about trauma among homeless female veterans, the struggle begins to find gender-specific housing facilities that can accommodate these young women and their children. As one national advocacy group said last month in a comprehensive report, female veterans “are being put at risk by a … system designed for and dominated by men.”

As the VA nears the end of its five-year initiative to eradicate veteran homelessness, it’s a good sign that the numbers overall are dropping. But the ranks of homeless female veterans are growing, and that means there’s still work to be done. 

Lily Casura

Journalist; founder of Healing Combat Trauma