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Homeless Women Veterans Struggle to Be Seen

Posted: April 05, 2017

There are more than two million women veterans in the U.S. today, and women veterans who are homeless are the fastest-growing group of veteran homeless. Yet if you ask the average American — even the average veteran — to describe a homeless veteran, you’ll quickly hear an almost universal description. The picture most of us seem to carry in our minds is of a grizzled older white male who served in Vietnam, has chronic mental health and/or substance abuse issues, and can be seen panhandling at an intersection with a cardboard sign. The trouble with that picture, besides the fact that it’s become a cliché, is anyone who doesn’t present that way — specifically, women veterans who are homeless — are increasingly left out of the picture.

Ask women veterans who’ve experienced homelessness if they sense that they’re invisible, and they’ll tell you “yes,” but add that the problem didn’t start when they became homeless — it began when they first served in the military.

“When I came home from Iraq, I felt invisible as a woman vet,” says Kayla Williams, Army veteran, author, and current Director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Center for Women Veterans, in a clip from C-SPAN. She describes how she would go out with groups of other veterans to a bar, and someone would buy just ‘the guys’ a round of free beers, figuring that they’d just come back from the war but that the women in the group must be “just wives, girlfriends or other hangers-on.” “No one looks at me and thinks, ‘combat veteran,’” adds Williams.

The phenomenon of “discounting” exists when we look past a population because we don’t actually “see” them — whether women veterans in general, or homeless women veterans in particular. Columbia anthropologist and public scholar Kim Hopper, Ph.D., author of the seminal work, Reckoning with Homelessness, raised that issue in the American Journal of Public Health in connection with the volunteer counts of street homeless, a big part of how the total number of homeless, veterans and otherwise, in the U.S. is estimated.


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