NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–For Penelope McClenan, a 52-year-old disabled veteran, the future is clouded by the most basic of uncertainties: does she have a home to call her own?
Over a year ago, on Jan. 29, 2014, a city marshal escorted her out of her apartment. It was her birthday.
McClenan is unable to work for medical reasons she ties to the time of her military service, and the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program had been helping to pay her rent for three years.
This intensive permanent housing program for homeless veterans has dispatched thousands of caseworkers to connect veterans to housing and medical services, distributing roughly 10,000 vouchers per year.
In 2011, the program, which in New York works with the city’s Housing Authority, began sending McClenan’s private landlord in Jamaica, Queens, a substantial portion of her rent each month. But rising rents meant that the subsidy wasn’t enough for this single mother. She began to fall behind on her payments.
For three months after the eviction, McClenan slept either in her car or her parents’ house until Adult Protective Services, a city agency, paid the overdue rent and made it possible for her to return to the apartment.
Now she is waiting for a decision by the New York City Housing Authority and HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program (NYCHA/VASH) to continue her rent subsidy.
In 2009, the Obama administration committed to ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to spend an unprecedented $1.6 billion to reduce to zero the number of homeless veterans this year. That represents a $248 million increase from 2014, according to Military.com.
The money is flowing to the Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program and federal and local partnerships–such as the one here in New York– in what is being described as the largest campaign in history to stamp out homelessness among military veterans, who have constituted as much as a quarter of the nation’s homeless population.
In addition to the money budgeted to combat homelessness, the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service announced last year more than $5 million in grants to 22 organizations across the nation to provide assistance to approximately 1,900 homeless female veterans and their families.
Goal to End Homelessness
"Our goal remains a systematic end to homelessness, which means there are no veterans sleeping on our streets and every veteran has access to permanent housing," Ndidi Mojay, an official at the Veteran Affairs Department in Washington, D.C., said in an email interview.
For female veterans such as McClenan, however, the question is whether that goal will be met.
The number of women wounded by their war service is at a zenith and so are their problems.
Female veterans are up to four times more likely to be younger than their male counterparts (with a median age of 47 for female veterans versus 61 for male veterans); be unemployed; and have a lower income than male veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Many VA housing opportunities aren’t suitable to women with children and some programs forbid or restrict the ages of children who can be included in the household, found a 2011 Government Accountability Office report.
"Nearly 40 percent of women veterans served by HUD-VASH entered the program with their dependent children," Joy J. Ilem, deputy national legislative director of the Cold Spring, Ken.,
advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, said in an email interview. "We need to address the transition needs of women veterans and overhaul the culture, values and services of the federal system and programs in place."
In a small number of cases, some housing providers reported incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault against female residents.
Dennis Culhane is director of research for the VA’s National Center on Homelessness among Veterans. "A lot of VA services have been designed for men," he said in a phone interview, "and with women becoming homeless, they have to redesign the program to be accessible to women, many of whom are accompanied by children."
Special Risk Factors
Last year, Disabled American Veterans released a report on the special risk factors for homelessness among female veterans.
Like male counterparts, women have difficulty translating their military experience into civilian employment finance, housing and social issues.
But Ilem, at Disabled American Veterans, emphasized some of the other problems outlined in the report. "Female veterans have additional or worse risk factors: characteristics or history of trauma; single parenthood; higher rates of unemployment; lower levels of social support following military service."
Authors of the Disabled American Veterans report made more than 20 recommendations. Of particular relevance to homeless is No. 6: "VA should build upon the local community partnerships and outreach established for other programs, such as homeless veterans, to establish support networks for women veterans in accessing health care, employment, financial counseling and housing."
How are efforts to fight homelessness catering to women’s special needs?
Women’s eNews sought interviews with the two organizations receiving grants by the Department of Labor in the New York area, Easter Seals New York and Black Veterans for Social Justice, to investigate that question, but received no responses to numerous requests. The Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service awarded 22 organizations across the United States to help 1,900 homeless female veterans and veterans with families.
Veterans’ need for services often don’t emerge until they’ve been discharged for a while, said a spokesperson of Volunteers of America, a major faith-based poverty relief organization based in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview. "It usually takes several years after a veteran returns home before he or she starts to reach a point of crisis."
Disabilities Post Service
Since McClenan’s discharge in January 2006 she has undergone several operations for injuries she sustained during the military period. She has also battled homelessness and been unable to work because of her disabilities.
In January 2003, McClenan was activated to support Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign in Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She began duty at Fort Dix, N.J., and says she was proud to serve.
But she sustained a head injury while working on cleanup of the attack aftermath around the former site of New York’s World Trade Center. Something heavy fell on her head and since then, she has been suffering migraines and says she does not have any distinct memories of her deployment.
McClenan was called to active duty with the Army’s 920 Transportation Unit but became ill during her training and preparation for deployment to Iraq, according to September 2004 Civil Court papers.
She was hospitalized in intensive care several times between October 2003 and May 2004. According to a military health service note, she was in medical retention in West Point in March 2005.
More than 10 years after her first hospitalization, McClenan is still today in and out of military hospitals.
She was diagnosed last year, with bilateral hip, degenerative joint disease and depressive disorder among other disorders, according to an official health certificate that she gave to Women’s eNews.
"I had six or seven surgeries from head to toe," she said. "I lost my hearing and I have brain trauma, my stomach and my back are all cut and I have my hip replaced."
McClenan says she has another surgery, a hip replacement, scheduled this Friday in the VA hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This series on U.S. female veterans was partially funded by the Solutions Journalism Network .
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