Long Beach, Calif. The $15,000 that former Army Pvt. Margaret Ortiz had in the bank when she left Iraq is long gone, spent on alcohol and cocaine.
By the time she found her way to a program run by the nonprofit U.S. Vets for homeless female veterans in this Southern California city, she’d slept in San Diego on the beach or anywhere she could find after a night of partying. One morning, she woke up behind a trash bin, her pants torn, with no memory of what happened.
Instead of helping her forget her six months in Iraq, where she said she faced attacks on her compound and sexual harassment from fellow soldiers, the alcohol and drugs brought flashbacks and raging blackouts. She said she tried to kill herself.
“You knew something was wrong with you, but you didn’t know what was wrong with you,” said Ortiz, 27, from atop her twin bed in a plain dorm-style room, a black 4th Infantry Division ball cap on her head. “Nobody knew, and so you couldn’t really handle it.”
‘It gets really hard’
Ortiz is one of the new faces among America’s homeless veterans.
They’re younger than homeless male veterans and more likely to bring children. Their number has doubled in the past decade, and there are an estimated 6,500 homeless female veterans on any given night — about 5 percent of the total homeless veterans population.
But women-only programs such as the one Ortiz participates in are few.
“It is always hard to find a place or resources or help when you are homeless,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It is almost impossible if you are a woman. Most of the VA facilities cater to men, and you can’t take a mom with two little kids and put her in the middle of a homeless center with 30 or 40 male veterans,” said Murray, D-Wash.
The distressed economy only made things worse.
“People think we’re just coming out of the military and we should have our stuff together,” said Tiffany Belle, 33, a former Navy sailor who served in the Philippines after the Sept. 11 attacks and lives with Ortiz at the U.S. Vets program. “It gets really hard. Some people don’t know where to go, what to do.”
Dealing with trauma
Like male veterans, many homeless female veterans face substance abuse and mental health problems. Many also struggle with sexual trauma that occurred in their childhood, in the military, or elsewhere.
Ortiz said she was the victim of childhood sexual trauma. In Iraq, she said she dealt with harassment from male soldiers who talked to her like she was a prostitute. She was a driver and her convoys regularly were attacked, she said.
She said she’s particularly bothered by an incident in which she was 40 feet from a building destroyed by a mortar where she was living in Tikrit.
A few months after she returned to the U.S., she was back in California, with plans to go to college, living with her parents and burning through her money on drugs and alcohol.
She eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide, and later in in-treatment programs for drugs and sexual trauma.
“I didn’t know how to process it and I didn’t know what to process because there was so much of it,” she said.
Catering to women
The program where the women live is one of fewer than 10 nationally that receives money from the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide care in specialized programs for homeless women veterans. It provides housing, but also employment help and treatment for sexual trauma.
Administrators had worked with male veterans for years and assumed the same types of programs worked for women. They quickly learned when they opened the women’s program in 2001 that the women’s issues were more complex and required longer treatment.
“They really have different ways of dealing with things,” said Dr. Diane West, a nurse and therapist who administers the program.
They also found that men and women in the same structure didn’t work. A majority of the women had experienced sexual trauma and craved privacy. Some became involved with the men, which complicated their treatment. They were moved to their own building in 2005.
Today, it offers 38 beds for women without children and recently expanded to add rooms for eight women with children. West has gotten calls from women needing help from as far away as Massachusetts. Among those calling for help, West said, was an Iraq veteran with a 3-month old.
Recently, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged to advocates to end homelessness among veterans in five years, and specifically mentioned the need to help women veterans.
The VA is far more proactive than it’s ever been, and recognizes the need to be more family friendly, said Pete Dougherty, director of VA’s homeless veterans programs. It supports legislation sponsored by Murray that seeks to expand government dollars to programs that target women veterans and the children of the homeless.