Staff Perspective: Homelessness - Why Are Female Veterans at Risk?

Staff Perspective: Homelessness - Why Are Female Veterans at Risk?

On a typical day driving in Washington, D.C., I spot two homeless men sleeping in tents beneath an underpass near the Kennedy Center and later see another disheveled man lying on a grate in front of a vacant storefront desperately trying to stay warm in Dupont Circle. The next day when I notice a person asking for change by the CVS near my apartment, I recognize his all too familiar face.  “He’s been there for weeks,” I think to myself.

With sadness I reflect on the number of homeless people in our nation’s capital, literally blocks away from the Supreme Court, White House and U.S. House of Representatives and Senate office buildings.  I can’t help but wonder what the policy-makers and chief justices working in these government offices think when they witness this upsetting problem.

Upon reflection, I realize that in the past several months I’ve only seen homeless men in the city, not women, and I often can’t discern if they are Veterans or not. Occasionally, there’s an indicator like a homeless man wearing a Vietnam Veterans hat or an unkempt young male holding a sign that reads: “Homeless Iraq vet, can you spare some change?” But most startling for me is discovering that female Veterans are four times more likely to experience homelessness than non-Veteran women, and that they are markedly more likely to face homelessness than their male Veteran counterparts (Montgomery et al, 2015).

While it’s true that homeless Veterans are overwhelmingly male (90%), female Veterans – who represent 7% of all Veterans—are homeless at a rate of 10% compared to their male colleagues at 7% (Perl, 2015). An even more alarming trend is the increased risk of homelessness among young female Veterans (Fargo et al, 2011).

I tell myself it’s a positive that female Veterans represent a fast growing segment of the Veteran population. Isn’t it a good thing that there are 2.2 million female Veterans today, and they are predicted to grow to 2.5 million in the next 10 years (Hamilton et al, 2014)? Currently, 20% of post-9/11 Veterans are women, and it’s anticipated that the portion of female Veterans will rise to nearly 18% by 2040 (Sturtevant et al, 2015). In fact, the percentage of women enlisted in the military has increased dramatically from FY1974 at 3% to 14% in FY2012 (US Dept. of Defense, Office of the Under Sec of Defense, FY2012). Yet, it’s incredibly disheartening to find out they are at greater peril for homelessness despite these strides.  

Why is this the case?  After investigating, I learned some possible reasons for this predicament.

  • In a study comparing homeless women Veterans to women Veterans who had housing, Washington et al. (2010) found that disability, unmarried status and unemployment were characteristics most associated with homelessness. Indeed, women Veterans have lower employment rates than their male counterparts. For example, there has been an increase in women Veterans’ unemployment rates from 4.6% in Jan 2014 to 6.2% in July 2015, whereas a decrease in male Veterans’ unemployment rates during this same period (US Dept. of Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).
  • Also, female Veterans face more difficult housing challenges when they return from service (Sturtevant et al, 2015).  We know they are more likely to be single parents (in 2012 more than 145,000 households were headed by single Veteran mothers); to live in poverty (Sturtevant et al, 2015) and to have a greater percentage of children in their custody (Tsai et al, 2015). While housing instability and high housing cost burdens are not uncommon among female Veteran households, low income female Veterans and single female Veterans with children are most likely to be hit with housing problems (Sturtevant et al, 2015).  In adjusting to civilian life, they often have insufficient support in surmounting barriers to provide for their families. This is consistent with the finding that child care is one the highest unmet needs reported by homeless Veterans and providers (Fargo et al, 2011). The Annual Housing Assessment Report (FY2012) highlights that there may be inadequate housing facilities for female Veterans and for those with children, especially those in need of transitional housing.  It’s no surprise that homeless Veteran housing dedicated just for women and women with children has been less available historically, although more recently Congress and the VA have been trying harder to address the needs of females (Perl, 2015).
  • In addition, female Veterans are more likely to have experienced sexual trauma than women in the general population (Wolf et al, 2000). In a study of homeless Veterans with military sexual trauma (MST) using VA care in FY2010 found, 40% of homeless women Veterans were identified as MST survivors (Pavao et al, 2013). Research has indicated that women Veterans with MST are more likely than other Veterans to be diagnosed with mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, substance use problems and personality disorders. These conditions can make the transition to civilian life more difficult and put these women at risk for homelessness. Consistent with these findings, Washington et al. (2010) found that PTSD, MST, anxiety disorders and fair or poor health were linked to homelessness.

These statistics begin to shed light on why the number of homeless female Veterans in the U.S. is increasing. It’s likely these issues and others overlap and exacerbate each other, leading some women Veterans down a slippery and hopeless slope.  Before they know it, they can find themselves living on the streets, which is starkly juxtaposed to the sense of security and stability that had when serving in the military.  What would it take for our policy makers to focus on this problem and make it a priority?

Paula Domenici, Ph.D., is a licensed Counseling Psychologist working as the Director of Civilian Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.


Annual Homeless Assessment Report, FY2012, p. 4-8.

Fargo, J., Metraux, S., Byrne, T., Munley, E., Montgomery, A. E., Jones, H., Sheldon, G., & Culhane, D. P. (2011). Prevalence and Risk of Homelessness among US Veterans: A Multisite Investigation. Retrieved from

Hamilton, A.B., Washington, D.L., & Zuchowski, J.L. (2014). Gendered social roots of homelessness among women veterans. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 37.2, 99-107.

Montgomery, E.A., Dichter, M.E., Thomasson, A.M., Xiaoying, F., & Roberts, C.B. (2015). Demographic characteristics associated with homelessness and risk among female and male veterans accessing VHA outpatient care. Women’s Health Issues 25-1, 42-48.

Pavao, J., Turchik, J.A., Hyun, J.K., Karpenko, J., Saweikis, M., McCutcheon, S., Kane, V., & Kimerling, R. (2013). Military sexual trauma among homeless veterans. Journal of General Internal Medicine, July: 28, Suppl 2:S536-41.

Perl, L. (2015). Veterans and homelessness. Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, RL34024.,

Sturtevant, L., Brennan, M., Viveiros, J., & Handelman, E. (2015). Housing and Services Needs of Our Changing Veteran Population: Serving Our Older Veterans, Female Veterans, and Post-9/11 Veterans.

Tsai, J., Rosenheck, R., Wesley, K., & Kane, V. (2015). Characteristics and use of services among literally homeless and unstably housed US veterans with custody or minor children. Psychiatric Services, 66(10), 1083-1090.

US Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, Population Representation in the Military Services, FY2012, Appendix D. Table D-13,

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). 2012 Employment Situation of Veterans. Washington, DC:

Washington, D.L., Yano, E.M., McGuire, J., et al (2010). Risk factors for homelessness among women Veterans.  Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 21 (1), 81-91.

Wolfe, J. et al (2000). Changing demographic characteristics of women veterans: Results from a national sample. Military Medicine 165(10), 800.