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."
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.
"Many of the women we see joined the military because they were seeking safety from an abusive step-parent or some sort of sexual abuse," says Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, a residential self-help program for veterans in Los Angeles that has treated an estimated 500 female veterans over the past 13 years. "Often they find the military was not, in fact, a safe place."
For female veterans who find themselves on the streets, the problem of finding an adequate shelter is often compounded by fear of sexual abuse. Only a handful of veterans' services around the US have special buildings or floors for women, despite the fact that social workers say separate facilities for homeless female vets are crucial for their recovery. "When you talk to women veterans, you'll hear them clearly say, 'we want a place of our own.' They don't feel safe," says Marsha Four, director of homeless veterans services at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-service and Education Center.
Many women who served in the military don't perceive themselves as veterans, which can also prevent them from seeking out services, says Ms. Beversdorf. She would like to see the VA undertake a broad-based campaign to educate veterans about their benefits.
One of them is Katye Gates, a veteran from Brimfield, Mass., who served in Iraq for 15 months – running a .50 caliber gunner on more than 180 army convoys. "When I first came back, it was weird because I'd go to vet centers, and it's nearly all men there. But I served my country."
Ms. Gates, a single mother who says she had "a hard time getting help" from the VA to find housing when she returned from Iraq, thinks that the department should institute a "buddy system" to pair up female veterans with others like them in their area.
The needs of women veterans stretch far beyond that for beds in temporary shelters, says Jack Downing, executive director of a VA-funded shelter in Leeds, Mass. "Everything has failed these women," he adds. "They need to be tethered to VA services for the rest of their lives. They need to be permanently connected to something if they are going to make it."
The VA has no permanent housing program for veterans; it only funds "temporary transitional" housing programs around the country. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides housing vouchers to the homeless that are administered by local authorities. The problem, experts say, is there are not enough affordable housing vouchers for all who need them.
But "if a woman is a veteran, it actually helps," says Beversdorf, because being both female and a veteran elevates her status for housing over other applicants.
Increasingly, veterans are getting connected to services better than ever before, says Mr. Dougherty. "What we're finding is that the vet community is being aggressive about trying to find homeless veterans," he says, noting that many recently returned veterans contact the VA via the Internet if they face health or housing problems.
Beversdorf agrees that there is "a lot more help out there than there was after [the Vietnam War]," in which she served from 1969 to 1971.