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Help lags for homeless female veterans

About 8,000 women lack permanent shelter. Need is likely to rise as more women return from war.

By Bina VenkataramanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2007

Rachel Caesar, the first American-born in her family of immigrants from Trinidad, served in the National Guard and Army Reserve for 14 years. Today, three years after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she's out of an apartment, out of work, and, on some days, ready to "run away and hide."

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Ms. Caesar still suffers from sleepless nights, jumpiness, and vivid flashbacks of weapon fire and land mine victims. In 2005, her doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); soon after, she had to quit her customer service job of eight years.

After she fell behind in rent, she and her landlord agreed it was time for her to go. "I'm not sure how long I can stay here," she says, of her mother's house in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, where she and her two sons have been living for the past two months. "I would go to a shelter, but I don't want to put my kids through that."

Like many women who return from war, Caesar – who calls herself "on the verge of homelessness" – is struggling to adjust to civilian life, make ends meet, and find a permanent home.

An estimated 8,000 female veterans are homeless in the US – the most in the nation's history and a number that is expected to increase as more women return from the war in Iraq. At the same time, services to help these women stay off the streets are lagging behind, say several experts who work with veterans' issues.

"With the likelihood of more women veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with a need for housing, it's going to be a major, major issue," says Cheryl Beversdorf, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, noting that there isn't enough housing to meet even current demands. "The VA is trying to gear up services for women, but frankly it's not enough given what we are dealing with."

Nearly 15 percent of the military is female, which partly explains the increase in female veterans and their homelessness. But of the 260 programs in the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans' network that give counseling, shelter, and other services to homeless veterans, only eight have special programs for women.

Existing programs for women are "probably not yet sufficient. There's not even one in every state," says Pete Dougherty, director of homeless programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

He notes, however, that last week the VA announced $12 million in new grants for programs for female, mentally disabled, and elderly veterans – double the current funding for these "special needs" programs. The VA will also fund about 80 additional beds for female veterans in shelters in five states.

The transformed role of women in the military, from nursing and administrative positions to the front lines, experts say, is partly responsible for the increased trauma they experience after war – a factor that increases their risk for homelessness. A woman who has served in the military is up to four times more likely to be homeless than a nonveteran woman.