Reporting from Fayetteville, N.C— As a soldier, Ruth Donaldson was an accomplished ammunition specialist. As a civilian, she became a stressed-out single mother struggling to find a job and raise her child.
After a five-year stint in the Army, Donaldson lost her job at a gas station. She couldn't pay her rent. She and her 6-year-old son ended up living in a Pontiac Grand Am, hungry, homeless and exhausted.
Women make up a growing number of homeless veterans, a group usually associated with combat-hardened men unable to cope with civilian life. Homelessness among female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has increased every year for the last six years — from 150 in 2006 to 1,700 this year — according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It just seemed like it was one thing after the other, and I got so far down it was hard to come out of it," said Donaldson, who moved last month into a shelter for female veterans in Fayetteville.
Female veterans contend with the same stresses that can lead to homelessness among male veterans — brain injuries, drug and alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. But many women also contend with sexual trauma, domestic abuse and pregnancy — often while trying to raise children alone.
The VA, which has made ending homelessness a priority, says 1 in 5 female veterans report sexual trauma in the military, compared with 1 in 100 men.
Stephanie Felder, homeless program coordinator for the VA in Fayetteville, outside Ft. Bragg, says 18% of homeless veterans assisted this year are women.
"It's often a slippery slope of one thing leading to another, and their circumstances just overwhelm them and they end up homeless," Felder said.
Dasia Handy, 23, arrived pregnant and homeless with an 18-month-old son at Jubilee House, a private center. Handy served four years as an Army chemical operations specialist before leaving last year.
"People don't realize the impact of being homeless," Handy said. "All the normal things you count on in your life are suddenly gone, and you're hung out there, all on your own."
Jubilee House was founded by Barbara Marshall, a former Navy chaplain who had readjustment problems when she left active duty. In 2006, Marshall opened her home to homeless female veterans.
Last year, she bought a foreclosed, three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot home to help house a growing number of homeless women. Last summer, with help from Ft. Bragg soldiers and the TV show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," the house was torn down and replaced by a new eight-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot facility.
Five formerly homeless female veterans live there with their children.
"These are smart, highly trained, highly skilled women with a lot of invisible scars," Marshall said. "All they need is a little help and encouragement."
Since 2006, the VA has helped almost 3,000 homeless female veterans among the 24,000 homeless veterans from the two wars. The numbers do not include homeless veterans who have not contacted the VA.
Overall, about 76,000 veterans are homeless in the U.S. on a given night, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report. (About 11% of all homeless veterans are in Los Angeles.) During 2009, nearly 136,000 veterans spent at least one night in a homeless shelter.
Veterans make up 8% of the U.S. population, but almost 16% of homeless adults. Half of all homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, and two-thirds are substance abusers, the VA said.
The VA offers a range of benefits, including medical care and education assistance. The agency also helps homeless veterans with housing, substance abuse and PTSD treatment, child care, employment and education. More than 400 formerly homeless vets have been hired and trained to help others find jobs.
But some don't apply for benefits. Others aren't aware they're eligible.
"They just assume they aren't eligible because they didn't get shot at," said Ed Drohan of the VA in Fayetteville. Any honorably discharged veteran is eligible, he said.
Though women do not serve in direct combat roles, all troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are vulnerable to enemy attack in wars with no front lines. Roadside bombs and insurgents kill and wound support troops as well as combat troops. Among veterans from those wars, about a quarter have PTSD or depressive disorder, and about a fifth are substance abusers.
Donaldson said she was diagnosed with PTSD, even though she did not serve in combat. She moved out after her then-husband, a soldier, physically abused her, she said.
She managed to get an apartment, but after she lost her gas station job, she couldn't afford her rent.
A friend told her about Jubilee House, where Donaldson now has a room for her and her son, Dante. The boy is enrolled in school and Donaldson has her eye on a rental house down the street. With VA housing assistance, she hopes to move in next month.
After leaving the Army while stationed in Germany last year, Dasia Handy said, she took a part-time job in a warehouse and found a nanny for her infant son. But she was injured in an accident and lost her job.
After she became pregnant in February, no one in Germany would hire her, she said. She ended up camping out at a friend's house.
From Germany, Handy called VA offices in five states, demanding help. "The military taught me to take charge," she said.
The VA in Fayetteville referred her to Marshall, who invited her to Jubilee House. Handy arrived in August.
"She was as persistent as she could be – very determined," Marshall said.
Handy has applied for a job and for college with financial help from the VA, which also helps pay for child care. With her baby due next month, she's looking for an apartment.
"My goal" she said, "is to be out of here and back on my feet as soon as possible."