By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON — For most of its existence, VA’s healthcare system has been geared almost exclusively toward men. In recent years, the agency has made a concerted effort to make facilities friendlier to women veterans, including taking into account the need for childcare and the addition of gender-specific clinics and increased consideration of privacy and safety.
Now, VA is challenged with expanding that movement to homeless-veteran programs. A lack of data on this segment of the homeless population and the absence of gender-specific safety considerations in veteran housing, however, present a sizable challenge.
According to VA data, the number of women veterans identified as homeless and who have been in touch with VA or Housing and Urban Development (HUD) more than doubled during the past five years, from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,328 in 2010. Of these, two-thirds were between 40 and 59 years old, one-third had disabilities, and many have minor children.
|Officially launched last spring, the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC runs a program titled, “New VIEWS,” at the Santa Maria Hostel to provide services for 29 homeless, female veterans. Photo from VA website.|
These characteristics cannot be generalized to the total homeless women veteran population. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the documented increase in the number of homeless female veterans is one of the only pieces of hard data that VA possesses about this population. Absent more complete data, the agency does not have the information to plan services effectively.
The recent GAO report reveals that neither VA nor HUD has collected data on the total number of homeless women veterans in the general population. Consequently, the agencies have no information about what this population needs on the national, state or local level.
The knowledge gap is partly due to poor outreach on VA’s part, the report states. Many homeless women veterans interviewed by GAO reported that they were unaware that VA had veteran housing programs or other types of homeless support. VA has since launched an outreach campaign that includes materials specific to homeless women veterans.
VA also requires staff to give homeless veterans a referral to short-term housing while they await placement in longer-term housing. Many women interviewed by GAO said they had never received such referrals.
Also, about 24% of VA medical center homeless coordinators did not have referral plans in place for temporarily housing homeless women veterans while they waited for the veteran housing available through the HUD VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program or through VA’s grant and per-diem (GPD) program.
Women waited an average of four months before securing HUD-VASH housing and, if they did not receive a referral, they did their waiting on the streets or in other unsafe places.
From the little data that is available, GAO was able to determine that many of VA’s homeless support programs do not meet the needs of this population.
Housing Restricts Children
More than 60% of GPD programs surveyed by GAO that serve homeless women veterans did not house children. Also, many of the programs that allow children have restrictions on the ages of the children accepted or on the number of children per family. GPD providers cited this as a significant barrier for women seeking to access veteran housing.
Part of the problem is financial. VA does not have the statutory authority to reimburse GPD providers for costs of housing veterans’ children.
Yet, “Limited housing for women and their children puts these families at risk of remaining homeless,” the report states.
Many of the women interviewed cited safety concerns. Some of the problems come from staff members and some from other residents. Reports of sexual harassment and assault on women residents at GPD programs included an incident of a male resident pushing a female resident down and trying to kiss her, as well as a staff member taking photographs of a female resident and making inappropriate telephone calls to her.
Other safety issues documented by GAO were unmonitored security stations, lack of privacy in bathrooms and showers, and doors meant to separate the men’s and women’s wings being left wide open.
According to GAO, there are no minimum gender-specific safety and security standards for GPD programs, and one-fourth of the programs surveyed cited “feeling unsafe in shelter or housing facility” as a barrier hindering women from accessing housing.
“Without such standards and oversight to ensure they are in place, homeless women veterans and their children may remain at risk of sexual harassment or assault,” the report states.
The report makes several recommendations, including that VA determine what gender-specific safety and security standards are needed in GPD programs, especially those serving both women and men, and incorporating those standards immediately.
The report also recommends VA and HUD actively gather better data about the homeless women veteran population and their dependents, and seek congressional authority to fund beds for the children of homeless veterans.