Hawaii celebrated two national milestones in as many days this week: the establishment of the country's second program designed to help homeless female veterans, and the swearing in of two female U.S. House members, both vets with ties to the state.
"The first female combat veterans of the United States have just been elected to the Congress … and they're both from Hawaii," Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Friday during a ceremony marking the start of the homeless program, a collaborative effort between The United States Veterans Initiative of Hawaii and the YWCA of Oahu.
"It was just something to see that new representative of Illinois (Tammy Duckworth), but from McKinley High School, coming up the steps of the Capitol yesterday on her prostheses, walking on her own with (U.S. Rep.) Tulsi Gabbard," Abercrombie said. "Those two — that's the new world."
Abercrombie stressed that when women began having a larger presence in the armed services — and in combat zones such as the Balkans in the 1990s — the country was not prepared for how that would fundamentally change the veteran population.
"This is a challenge for us here in the United States to come to grips with; something we have ignored," Abercrombie said, talking about homeless female veterans. "Not necessarily deliberately — people don't even have a clue that this is going on. … It doesn't occur to anybody that this is something we have to face as a nation. This is an entirely new construct for us."
Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, chief executive officer of YWCA of Oahu, was inspired to establish a local program to help homeless female veterans get jobs during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Honolulu. At the meeting, Darryl Vincent, U.S. VETS chief operating officer, explained that his organization wasn't serving many women because its program and facilities were predominantly tailored to help men.
Of the 98 beds available for homeless veterans at the U.S. VETS Barbers Point location, about four are occupied by women at any given time.
"Darryl admitted that those numbers were very low, lower than he would have liked to admit," Miyazawa Frank said. "And he explained that with women veterans in addition to the reintegration challenges that are faced by men — PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, substance abuse — many women veterans also face MST: military sexual trauma."
Steve Peck, president and CEO of U.S. VETS, said Friday that he initially had trouble finding homeless veterans to sign up for the nation's first women-focused program when he worked to establish it in Long Beach, Calif., in 2001 because it did not focus on dealing with traumatic sexual experiences.
"We had to handle that first, so we wrote another grant that provided the treatment for sexual trauma with the Long Beach VA, (and) the program filled like that," Peck said, snapping his fingers. "We were getting women from all over the country … because of that program. That was 12 years ago, and we've been trying to open another program ever since."
According to Dr. William Dubbs, medical director for the Veterans Administration Pacific Islands Healthcare System, 75 percent of female veterans suffer from some kind of sexual abuse.
Dubbs said women currently make up 20 percent of the armed forces, and the percentage of veterans who are women is up from 10 years ago. Female veterans, he said, are four times more likely to become homeless than women in the civilian population.
Alfreda Trawick is one of those women.
"They gave the statistics about drugs and alcohol — that's not my story," she said. "But life happened to me … life just took me by the blind side, and I'm here."
Trawick, 50, moved into the YWCA of Oahu's all-female Fernhurst residence in Makiki within the past week as one of the first five women to enter the new program.
U.S. VETS-Hawaii is leasing 10 rooms at the residence, for a total of 20 beds, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that was approved in October. The grant will pay for each night a bed is occupied, Vincent explained when the funding was announced. He said he expects about 60 women per year to rotate through the program.
If all 20 beds are occupied 365 days a year, the grant could total up to $288,000 a year, he said. The money also will be used to provide the women with three meals a day and offer them the same supportive services and programs that go on in the organization's facility at Barbers Point.
"I'm glad that there were resources, because I didn't know what to do," said Trawick, who served in the Coast Guard for about 10 years and moved to Hawaii for an assignment in the 1990s. "I didn't have what I needed as far as support, as far as going back home, so it was like what do you do, you know?"
VA services at Tripler Army Medical Center pointed Trawick to U.S. VETS-Hawaii after she became homeless during the summer of 2012.
"I'm going to be OK now versus being out there in the elements," she said. "I'm going to be OK."
Vincent said that in nine years of running an integrated program at Barbers Point, women have been more successful (72 percent) than men (65 percent) at graduating and moving on to stable housing.
In addition to having access to comprehensive clinical case management, workforce readiness services and VA services through U.S. VETS-Hawaii, women who enter the program will also be able to utilize YWCA services such as Dress for Success-Honolulu, the residence's computer room and other employment coaching opportunities.
"Our job is to take care of all the basic structure and necessary things so a homeless individual or person in need … can focus on what they need to (do to) become independent," Vincent said. "So it's about empowerment."
He said he believes that the nation's goal of ending homelessness among veterans is obtainable, and Hawaii is in a unique position to "show the rest of the nation how you get it done."
Distributed by MCT Information Services