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More homeless female veterans seek shelter

The number of homeless female veterans have gone up in recent years  — and so has the need to shelter them.
Image: Carisa Dogen
Carisa Dogen of Dayton, Ohio, is among 7,000 to 8,000 homeless female veterans, as estimated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The homeless female veteran is a relatively new phenomenon because only recently have so many women  been serving in the military. Skip Peterson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Carisa Dogen looks back on her life of 38 years, it's easy to see where she lost her way: She left her hometown of Dayton at 15 and moved to Kentucky, where she graduated from high school and enrolled in electronics school. But drugs beckoned, and she didn't finish.

She joined the military, but fate intervened and she later found herself homeless — forced to sleep in parks on some nights when it was bitterly cold and rainy, and scavenge for food in trash cans.

"I got accosted a couple of times by males. Walking the streets and stuff, it's hard and it's scary," she said in the comfort of The Other Place, a homeless shelter in Dayton that helped put her into new housing where she will receive treatment and job training.

Particularly bewildering for Dogen, she is an Army veteran. Her life should never have come to this.

Of the 1.8 million female military veterans, Dogen was among the 7,000 to 8,000 who are homeless, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She is among the few who have benefited from new housing specifically for female veterans, an initiative homeless advocates say falls far short of what is needed.

Dogen will live in a 27-unit renovated apartment building for female veterans on the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus. It was completed in August and is expected to be completely filled sometime this month.

A new phenomenon
That number of apartments intended specifically for female veterans makes the building one of the largest of about a dozen around the nation, said Peter Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs for Veterans Affairs. Run by a private housing agency, it will give veterans access to medical services, day care, job training, and drug and alcohol counseling.

The homeless female veteran is a relatively new phenomenon because only recently have so many women — more than 190,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan alone — been serving in the military, said Todd DePastino, a historian at Waynesburg University who wrote a book on the history of homelessness.

The number of homeless female veterans have gone up — from 3 percent of all homeless veterans a decade ago to 5 percent, the VA says.

"It's a national embarrassment," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

For Dogen, the struggle is personal.

For nine years she lived in Dayton, until she turned 15 and moved to Pikeville, Ky., where she graduated high school.

"I had to carry a briefcase, and my grandma had me go to school in three-piece suits," Dogen recalled.

Seeking shelter
After graduating in 1988, Dogen moved to Louisville to study electronics and got mixed up in drugs. She quit school. "I was kind of ashamed and embarrassed to go back home because I didn't finish school," she said, so she moved to Murray, Ky., and enlisted in the Army.

But depression set in, and she turned to alcohol to take the edge off. Then as she prepared to deploy overseas in 1990 as the military geared up for action in the Persian Gulf, the Army discovered she had scoliosis — which causes an abnormal curvature of the spine — and gave her a medical discharge. Out of work and unable to sit or stand for long periods, she collected a box of rejection letters from potential employers.

"It was a long time before I started working because I had a drinking problem," she said.

But she has been out of work since 2000, on and off drugs for 10 years and in March lost the apartment she had since 2005. Which is how she ended up at The Other Place, which served as a temporary shelter while she applied for housing on the VA Medical Center campus.

Women-only programs
The VA estimates that 154,000 veterans were homeless on any given night last year, about a 20 percent decrease from the 195,827 in the agency's 2006 estimate. Dougherty said the number is down partly because the department has beefed up its housing programs.

The VA gives funding priority to groups that specifically serve women and the number of sites for women-only programs has increased as a result.

More women are showing up at the doors of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco group that provides housing and other services to homeless veterans.

Tia Christopher, the group's coordinator for women, said a 25-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq recently came to her for help. The woman was sleeping on a couch in the home of her mother and stepfather.

"There is high risk she's going to be homeless with a substance-abuse issue, and I can't get her in anywhere," Christopher said.

Christopher herself had only a car and $500 when she left the Navy. She lived with her grandmother until she could find a job. "I was in the military and now I had to beg my grandmother for help?" she said. "I had to swallow my pride."

PSTD services 'behind the curve'
The reasons are varied why military veterans become homeless.

Repeated deployments make it difficult for them to keep their finances in order and for reservists to hold on to their civilian jobs. Fallout from military service — which can include post-traumatic stress disorder — can seriously damage family and other relationships. Those stresses can lead to withdrawal and depression, which can make it difficult to land a job. The lack of income makes it hard to pay rent or a mortgage.

Few Veterans Affairs centers offer residential mental health treatment specifically for women with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Amy Fairweather, director of the Iraq veterans program for Swords to Plowshares.

"The services are really behind the curve," she said.

The VA has 15 such facilities that can accept women.

Female veterans without housing often resort to shelters. Out of 500 VA-run homeless shelters, 300 can accept women. Only 22 have programs that address female veterans specifically or have living arrangements separate from men.

In programs that serve both sexes, women are usually in the minority and are often uncomfortable discussing physical issues, such as sexual trauma, Dougherty said. As a result, some don't make progress with their problems.

As for Dogen, she hopes to take full advantage of the services at the Dayton apartments. She said she has been drug-free for the past several months.

"I have problems with everything," she said. "I'm going to need all the help I can get."