DENVER, Colo. — Davida Barlow was just out of high school in Camas, Wash., when she joined the Navy. She was put to work in the galley at a duty station in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and later served at a submarine station in her home state.
When she left the Navy after two years in 1996, she did not think of herself as a veteran.
“I didn’t serve for very long,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who have served for 20, 30 years. And my little, measly two years? And I didn’t serve in combat.”
When the slow breakup of her marriage to a verbally abusive fellow sailor led to bouts of joblessness and homelessness in the early 2000s, Barlow didn’t turn to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help.
This disconnect — along with a lack of gender-specific services and programs for former female servicemembers — kept many women away. But it also triggered the VA to start changing the way it serves women and learning more about how to help.
Barlow has benefited from the steps the VA has taken — in partnership with private groups and other government agencies — to find innovative solutions to address their needs.
When a new housing project with the private Del Norte Development Corp. opened last year in Denver, Barlow and her two children were among the first to move in.
After years of insecurity, Barlow was happy and thankful to have a home. Then she heard about a women-only housing project by the same developer to be completed early next year in Denver being built with vets in mind.
Homeless female vets are more likely than their male counterparts to be living with their children, so Barlow believed that her 14-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son would have more playmates in a women-only complex. And she had seen female vets who were victims of sexual abuse who were uncomfortable in the building where she had found a home.
“It’s really traumatic for these women to be around men,” Barlow said.
While she has no plans to move, she calls the women-only project “a wonderful idea.”
'A difficult population to track'
Homelessness among vets overall is decreasing, according to the VA Homeless Initiative, but concern is growing about homelessness among female vets. The VA says the percentage of female vets grew from about 6 percent of all vets in 2000 to more than 8 percent today, and is expected to top 14 percent by 2035.
Already, women make up nearly 11.6 percent of the vets of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
A 2003 study cited by the Service Women’s Action Network found that female vets are four times more likely to be homeless than women who have not served or men who have. The numbers, though, are hard to pin down.
“It’s a very difficult population to track,” said Katy Otto, spokeswoman for the Service Women’s Action Network, an independent advocacy and support group. Some women, like Bartow, don’t connect with the VA as serving female veterans, and others reject the label of being homeless.
Barlow said she never lived on the streets. She said she moved from state to state, living in her own apartment when she could manage, staying with friends at other times, and once with her father. She eventually divorced her husband, then started and ended a relationship with another abusive man.
She turned to shelters, she said, ticking off the stays on her fingers until she decided they were too numerous to count.
“We went through a lot of shelters. We sure did,” she said. “I was really grateful when we got this place.”
The low-cost housing developer behind the women-only project, Jim Mercado, was approached by neighborhood leaders when a community theater was planning to move out of an 86-year-old school. The neighborhood did not want the historic building to sit idle.
Mercado came up with the idea of turning part of it into a resource center for female vets and connecting the space to a new block of apartments.
A formal roundbreaking ceremony was held on Veterans Day for the Del Norte project, which will have 36 apartments — up to half designated for veterans. Mercado said he had consulted on other projects for veterans and learned that women were rarely specifically targeted for help. His research also convinced him that vulnerable women vets needed more than housing.
For help, he turned to Carol Lease, executive director of a Denver organization called The Empowerment Program. It formed in 1986 to support women in trouble, including women recently released from prison.
Lease will oversee drug and alcohol counseling, job training and other services for women at what Mercado calls the Odyssey Family Residence.
“It’s helping women take control of their lives,” said Lease, who expects that the female vets at Odyssey will be suffering from drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, likely aggravated by sexual abuse.
The VA says one in five women treated at its hospitals report military sexual trauma, defined as sexual assault, repeated threatening or sexual harassment. That compares to one in 100 men — a dramatic example of how the military experiences of women and men differ.
These women are often abused by men who served alongside them or were their superiors; many suffer out of fear without seeking counseling.
“We’re really looking at hard-to-serve homeless women veterans,” Lease said. ``We’re going to be working to make sure that women’s needs aren’t glossed over.”
Lease plans to hire female veterans who have experienced homelessness or other crises to work with the women at Odyssey, saying they can be role models and beacons of hope.
She has sought advice from female vets, including Kathryn Wirkus, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who founded the support group Women Veterans of Colorado in 2010. Wirkus, like Barlow, had trouble thinking of herself as a veteran when she left the military. She retired in 2006 after 27 years.
“I truly did not know that I was a vet,” she said. “I thought only men, and men who had served in combat,” had earned that designation.
One of the things Odyssey can do, Wirkus said, is raise awareness among the public and among female vets about the contributions of women who have served and the challenges they face when they leave the military.
Months before Odyssey was to be open, Lease was getting phone calls and emails from women seeking apartments. Mercado has spoken to local businesses about training and jobs for the women. The neighbors, many of them Hispanic, are enthusiastic about the project, Mercado said.
Hispanic families have long looked to the military for careers and education, said Mercado, who is Hispanic and a son and nephew of World War II veterans.
“There’s a lot of respect for what these women have been through, and a lot of respect for what the military means,” Mercado said.
New strategies to help
Some Odyssey residents will likely pay their rent with vouchers from the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.
Under the program begun in 2008 and known as HUD-VASH, veterans can get help with rent from HUD, and health and other services from the VA.
Barlow learned about HUD-VASH at a municipal social services office, and that led her to her apartment — one of 27 in a complex built by Denver’s private Del Norte Development Corp.
She, her children and a cat moved into the furnished three-bedroom, two-bath apartment last March. And she’s enrolled in community college, saying she may go into social work.
Susan Angell, executive director of the VA’s Veterans Homeless Initiative, said HUD-VASH was an example of new strategies that can help women, particularly those with children.
“We didn’t always have the capacity to help the children,” she said. “Our mandate is to serve the veterans.”
HUD-VASH and another new VA program, Supportive Services for Veteran Families, provide flexibility. Under SSVF, the VA awards grants to private groups that provide help in various ways to low-income vets.
The first grants under SSVF were offered in September 2012. In all, $60 million in grants was allotted in the first year. That will increase five-fold starting in September 2013.
“Those are such good programs for homeless women veterans,” Angell said. “And their children can be served under these programs.”
Barlow’s advice to other women who have served who are struggling to find help?
“Make sure you tell them you’re a vet.”