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Veterans First works to house homeless female vets

PHOENIX  — Two decades ago, Dana Oviatt started her career in the Army as a combat photographer.

Her new work environment quickly became an unpleasant one when she was assaulted two weeks after her first day.

"I was scared to report it," Oviatt said. "I was 18 and away from home for the first time. I was scared to tell my parents when I called home, but I cried a lot. I never brought that incident to light until this past year."

Oviatt remained in the Army for six years before being honorably discharged. But after the stress of losing both parents and her husband to cancer, she developed a drug problem.

Oviatt tried to manage her problem, but after another relationship ended, she found herself with nowhere to go. Oviatt found temporary housing for women trying to overcome addiction, but it proved to be more of a hindrance than a help.

"It was supposed to be drug- and alcohol-free, but the people there would sometimes relapse," she said of others in treatment, which could cause exposure to "the very thing you're trying to get away from."

A friend aware of her challenges told her about Mary Ellen's Place, affordable housing in Phoenix for low-income female veterans. In June of this year, Oviatt moved into the home.

Oviatt said that if Veterans First, the organization that founded Mary Ellen's Place, did not provide affordable housing and other services for female veterans, she doubts that she would have reached her 14th month of sobriety.

"They've made it very safe and comfortable for me to have my own place and stand on my own two feet," said Oviatt, an assistant supervisor at a call center. She added that the housing still is "conducive to some kind of structure."

Joan Sisco, CEO of Veterans First, has witnessed the impact of Mary Ellen's Place and hopes to expand that model to help female veterans with children.

Sallie's Place will be an affordable housing community for single women with children. The home is named for a Vietnam vet.

Veterans First is partnering with Community Housing Partnership, a non-profit that provides housing for homeless people, to open Sallie's Place near Peoria and Ninth avenues. It will house eight two-bedroom apartments, Sisco said. The non-profit needs to raise $400,000.

"The plan is to get it done by the end of next year and move them in and have a grand opening in January 2015," said Sisco, a Marine Corps vet.

As of October, more than 59,000 female veterans live in Arizona, Sisco said. Many of them struggle to find housing. While there are certainly more homeless veterans who are men, the number of homeless female veterans is on the rise, particularly those returning to the United States now, she said.

A tough economy and a Veterans Affairs Department with limited resources and staffing have left many women underserved. "The needs were there but their needs aren't being met, so we just decided that's what we're going to focus on," Cisco said.

Female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veterans population, said Brad Bridwell, co-chair of the Phoenix Military Veterans Commission. This is in part due to the increased participation of women in the military, he said.

Providing housing and employment are the first steps to helping them become more independent, Bridwell said.

"Jobs are critical, so anything we can do to prioritize veterans getting employment is certainly helpful," he said. "Those are the primary focuses — jobs and affordable housing."
 

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