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Help hard to find for homeless female veterans

03/08/2011 11:29 PM

03/09/2011 1:00 PM

FORT WORTH -- Clara "Ruth" Gordon, an Air Force veteran, spent four years homeless, living in shelters along East Lancaster Avenue.

A lingering foot injury she says she suffered years ago while in the military limited her employment options. She stayed in three shelters while she looked for housing programs for homeless veterans.

She says she found plenty -- for men. But other than four beds in the Presbyterian Night Shelter, there was little for female veterans.

"There are special shelters for veterans, but they are all full of men," Gordon said. "Women were sort of on their own."

Most programs are geared toward men because female veterans are just a sliver of the homeless veteran population, officials say. But a recent federal report suggests that, as more woman serve in the military, the demographic will grow and agencies will need to expand services for female veterans, particularly those with children.

"Almost all the facilities built to help homeless veterans are built around the male model," said Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and executive director of Grace After Fire, a Texas nonprofit that works to ensure that female veterans get equitable access to care. "You don't find them with child care, and playgrounds and common areas for women. We are going to need those kinds of places."

During a point-in-time survey in January 2009, 75,609 homeless veterans were in the U.S., about 5,500 in Texas, the report found. Female veterans made up about 8 percent of veterans in homeless shelters.

Some local agencies, such as Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County, are researching the possibility of developing homeless services for female veterans. The agency already operates Liberty House, a 30-bed facility for male veterans.

When it comes to housing, female veterans are probably the least-served of the veteran population, said Lenny Welpman, program manager at Liberty House.

"I think in some ways the need caught everybody off-guard," Welpman said. "But if you look at the dynamic of the modern soldier, we're going to have more women coming back from overseas. We have to prepare for it."

'God and country'

Gordon, 50, joined the Air Force a few years after graduating from Boswell High School in 1979. Her grades weren't good enough for a college scholarship and her father and uncle had served in the military.

"My family was very 'God and country,'" she said.

She injured her left foot during a training exercise, she said. The injury became recurring and cut short her commitment. In the years after her discharge, she worked a variety of office jobs, including data entry clerk. She became so accustomed to compensating for the bad left foot that her right foot now gives her trouble, she said.

Eventually, she developed migraine headaches that caused her to miss work, she said. Her mother, who lived with her, fell ill and died. Gordon lost her job and, eventually, her home.

"One thing after another happens and, before you know it, you don't have a place to call home," Gordon said. "It's very unsettling."

She stayed at the Salvation Army, at the Union Gospel Mission and, for one night, at the Presbyterian Night Shelter.

A few years ago, the night shelter opened Patriot House, a separate shelter for male veterans. The four beds reserved for female veterans are in the main shelter. Recently, the beds were all occupied, though there was no waiting list, said Jennifer Willemin, shelter veteran services manager.

Some of the women there served during Desert Storm and Vietnam, Willemin said. None had recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.

The problems that drive female veterans into homelessness are often the same as those of men: mental illness and substance abuse, Willemin said. Women are more likely, however, to have suffered domestic violence or sexual assault.

Female veterans are at increased risk of homelessness because they often have more trouble than men translating their military skills into employment, Olson said. Veteran women have twice the rate of unemployment of civilian women despite generally being better educated.

Olson said she knows two female veterans who are living in their cars in Fort Worth.

Housing vouchers

Gordon is no longer living in a shelter. A few weeks ago, she moved into an apartment just south of downtown Fort Worth with a voucher obtained through a program of the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments.

Linda Saucedo, program manager for the VA's Fort Worth homeless-veterans program, said the program helps compensate for the lack of community programs for homeless female veterans.

Veterans in the program receive housing vouchers, case management and support services. Of the 117 veterans who have gotten housing, 12 are women, according to the Fort Worth Housing Authority.

The House of Representatives, however, has proposed cutting 10,000 vouchers for fiscal 2011. Federal agencies have awarded about 30,000 vouchers since 2008.

Gordon said now is not the time to cut help for struggling veterans.

"My life is a lot better now that I have a home," she said. "They need to keep finding ways to help more women."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

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