Slightly over a decade ago, Hope Jackson, who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army, was serving in the Middle East and entertaining thoughts of retiring to her native Florida after 25 years in the military.
Instead, Jackson, 49, found herself in the middle of the West Texas desert, overseeing the renovation of a three-bedroom house that will be a shelter this fall for as many as 12 homeless veterans.
Carrying a child’s enthusiasm and few regrets about how her fate has changed, Jackson said she was doing what her faith dictates she should.
“God spoke to me,” she explained. “He said he wanted me to take care of his children.”
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The children, Jackson said, are female veterans who have served their country honorably but have since fallen on hard times. There was no better place for Jackson’s mission than El Paso, where she returned after her deployment and which is home to Fort Bliss, one of the largest military installations in the country. But as celebrated as veterans are in the city, El Paso lacks resources for homeless female veterans.
In October 2011, Jackson used her own money to buy a $70,000 house on the city’s northeast side that she calls the Rutherford House of Peace. It is one component of her plan called the HOPE (Healing, Optimizing, Perfecting and Empowering) Institute, which will include a similar unit for female veterans with children two miles away.
The program will include classes on topics ranging from basic hygiene to credit repair, homeownership and résumé building. The first 16 weeks are paid for by the HOPE Institute, Jackson said. After that, tenants need to have a job.
“If they can’t, then they need to be re-evaluated,” she said.
The situation in El Paso became dire about two years ago, she said, when the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped allowing shelters or group homes to house both male and female veterans.
“There were some issues — and quite naturally there are going to be some issues when you have a homeless population of people cohabitating and not a whole lot of oversight,” she said. As a result, she said, many women found themselves with no place to go.
The El Paso Coalition for the Homeless put the number of homeless veterans in the city at about 154, with an average age of 49. Most, about 89 percent, are men. About 1,400 people are homeless.
Jackson said the number of homeless veterans, women included, is much higher.
The Rutherford House of Peace will serve women living on the street as well as women in transition who “stay on couches” with friends or relatives.
“What I can tell you is that there are women that don’t have permanent housing who are veterans,” she said. “We are closer to the triple digits than we are to the double digits.”
Ben Bass, executive director of the Recovery Alliance of El Paso, a coalition of rehabilitation and shelter services for the city’s homeless, agreed.
“That 154 is what we did a physical count of in January,” he said of the coalition’s numbers. “We had, at one time, a shelter for female veterans. It was nice and safe and separated from the men. Women started coming out of the woodwork.”
Joel Arrigucci, the social work supervisor for the El Paso VA Health Care System, said that the system has had emergency shelters for veterans since 2011 but that the only coed facility was closed “because of concerns that it was not adequately equipped to accommodate both genders.”
Jackson said she could have opted for a downtown space and housed as many as 100 women. But she said choosing a house in a residential neighborhood allows tenants there to “see people going to work and children going to school” instead of homeless people in the alleyways. It is part of the overall aesthetic she hopes to create to motivate her tenants.
"We can’t guarantee success, but we can facilitate it,” she said. “It’s going to be up to them to make the choice. If they fail, it won’t be because of the program.”
Women must apply and be screened, and not every applicant will be accepted. The facility does not treat drug or alcohol abuse, and tenants are expected to contribute rent after a few months. (Jackson is still making payments on the house.)
“This is a home for people serious about changing their lives,” she said.
Arrigucci said the VA is ready to collaborate with Jackson to help female veterans meet their needs. But she is going about the effort without asking the agency for assistance, relying instead on her faith and support from the community.
She has received help from Home Depot, which donated about $15,000 worth of supplies and labor. An air-conditioning unit was donated from Georgia. Soldiers from Fort Bliss have volunteered their time to help with the construction, and the local sheet metal workers union has pitched in to do vents and ductwork.
“That’s why I know that God is going to bless me with the resources to do this independent” of the veterans agency, she said.
Avoiding the VA
Bass can attest to what Jackson has avoided by circumventing the agency.
In June, he submitted a proposal to create a partnership between the agency and Recovery Alliance to establish a 23-bed shelter called Casa Vida for veterans in central El Paso.
Casa Vida is on a sprawling lot in a former schoolhouse that includes a kitchen, several rooms, a chapel and a recreation room. But the building needed about 30 improvements to meet VA standards. Bass was told last month that the application had been rejected. The building was up to code, according to city building inspectors, but was out of compliance with VA standards.
“The only thing I can deduce from that is that no matter what we do, we’re not going to get a contract with the VA,” he said. “It’s too bad, especially for homeless female veterans. Clearly they are not going to be served.”
Without federal help, Jackson knows, she might be left guessing about where the rest of her resources will come from and how much she will need as she continues to raise money.
Asked how she plans to deal with any shortfall, she pointed to the sky and said, “He’ll take care of it.”