Serving the Women Who Served

Yolanda Shelton came out of the Army after 8 years service and found herself in Los Angeles down to her last $7 with no place to go. Shelters and facilities that house women won’t accept a male child over the age of 12 so she and her son spent months in the street.

Mika Montoya joined the National Guard at 17 thinking she would defend the nation. Six months later she found herself in Iraq. On her return she had another surprise: her child is a daughter, but she found programs for vets rarely if ever accommodate mothers.

Both women told their stories at the Women Veterans Summit held on March 19 on the campus of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.

Callie Wight, the Women Veterans Program Manager Greater Los Angeles, agreed. She has a long list of providers of residential treatment centers but can’t name a single one that takes women with their children. How many beds are there in permanent supportive housing for women with kids? None.

A year ago when Julie De La Mora of the CA Employment Development Department brought servicewomen together, Wight told of vast improvements in women’s access to necessary health services. The day was a celebration of military women’s accomplishments. This year, Wight and De La Mora were hosts of the event but so was Tracy Satterfield Tordella of the Homeless Women Veteran’s Collaborative. Along with recognition and celebration, they joined forces to put the focus on the most vulnerable military sisters.

All day, panelists representing agencies and service providers discussed housing, law, health, employment and education, their best practices, gaps in service, and future plans. If your priority is not the full report but rather in knowing what you can do now to address homelessness among women veterans, please feel free to skip to the end of the article for an Action Alert.

Military Sexual Trauma as a Barrier to Being Served

A high percentage of homeless women vets suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or are survivors of domestic violence, said Cacilia Kim, an attorney with the California Women’s Law Center. Because male veterans so outnumber females, a woman may find herself alone and isolated in the settings intended to help her. If a woman doesn’t feel safe in transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, Kim said, “she won’t see it as a viable option.”

Similarly, Dr. Jeanette Lantz, VA psychologist, noted that a woman with MST severe enough to require treatment on an inpatient psychiatric ward may find herself housed on a floor with men. Anne Hudson-Price of Public Counsel is concerned when MST survivors in Family Court seeking to regain or keep custody are stuck in a waiting room for hours with men charged with domestic violence. When women are placed in trigger situations like these, they are unlikely to access possible services.

But specifically, when it comes to housing, government programs as well as private landlords fear violating the Fair Housing Act if they provide gender-segregated facilities. Kim, however, interprets the law to ask whether women have equal access to housing under conditions which feel unsafe or can retraumatize.

In the meantime, providers can be urged to assign women quarters near the security office, or on separate floors of a shared building. Kim would like to see separate facilities for women vets, but for an exception to be made, you need a “damn good reason,” and anecdotal accounts won’t cut it. Right now, data isn’t being collected, and Kim says empirical evidence is needed to make an effective argument.

“If there’s a survey, even if it takes 45 minutes or an hour, fill it out,” requested Stephanie Stone of the LA County Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Register with the VA even if you have other insurance,” Wight said. Funding for programs depends on enrollment. “Even if you won’t use all the services, enroll so that your sisters can.”

One service on the West LA VA campus is Naomi House, said Natalie Wells of VA housing programs. The Salvation Army operates this all-woman bungalow but as Congress has cut funding, its future is uncertain. Sharon McLendon of the New Directions Women’s Program told of their two houses in Mar Vista, home to 14 women who receive wraparound services:

  • clinical support
  • tutors to prepare for a return to school
  • employment preparation including vocational certificate programs
  • assistance with family visitation and reunification and
  • moving expenses.

Los Angeles does have programs that work but not enough of them. More units will open in the next year or two but need will still far exceed supply.

Discriminatory Effect of Existing Law

“My personal point of view?” said Wight. “Women need their own membership-based veterans organization with clout to lobby Congress.”

Federal law regulating HUD funds, including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers use definitions of eligibility that tend to work against the needs of women, and so laws and regulations need to be challenged, amended, or reinterpreted. (see the Action Alert)

One example of creative interpretation was obvious upon entering the conference room. The VA is legally banned from providing “child care” but some women vets could not have attended at all unless they could bring their young children. An area in the back of the room was set aside for “children’s activities” where volunteers kept the kids occupied. The mothers had seating in the back of the room too as they were required to keep their kids in their line of sight.

In many cases, change can only come through the state legislature or Congress and sometimes that’s what happens. For example, Congress has now authorized the VA to cover the first seven days of a baby’s life instead of having to stop care upon the baby’s delivery.

Existing law too often fails to take into account the special needs of mothers, but it ignores the needs of women who want to have children. An audience member told of undergoing 14 surgeries due to what she suffered in Iraq. Her injuries and surgeries left her infertile. Today, she’s happily pregnant, but she and her husband had to come up with $12,000 on their own to cover in vitro fertilization because the VA is not allowed by law to treat infertility–even when the condition is recognized as service-connected.

One-Stop Shopping

Vets are a priority population for the new Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing initiative through which an LA County applicant registers only once to search all appropriate housing available through multiple programs and nonprofit providers. Where to register depends on neighborhood. Veterans can learn where to go by contacting outreach manager Michelle O’Neil at 310.478.3711 ext. 40261 or Michelle.O’Neil@va.gov. (Outside of LA County, try 877-4AID-VET or va.gov/homeless.)

One-stop shopping is now the goal to correct years of vets getting the runaround or being sent from one office to another. There will still be multiple locations for services, but getting help will be more coordinated and streamlined.

Military Sexual Trauma CompensationStone reported that the county-owned building, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall at 1816 South Figueroa Street, will soon offer “all things veteran,” – nonmedical, that is – from help with the VA claims process to a place to meet with a wide range of agencies and nonprofits. (As for existing long-delayed VA claims, Linda Benoit, California Department of Veterans Affairs said California has now established three regional offices–one in Los Angeles–to expedite paperwork and get through the backlog.)

By the time everyone has moved into Patriotic Hall–probably in May–a list of providers and a calendar will be available. Not every provider will be on-site every day, however, so once the program is fully operational, vets should check the calendar schedule before making the trip.

Having a central location for services makes a huge difference. When it comes to supportive housing, Dr. Lantz pointed out how much it matters to have services co-located with the residential area. Women who are stressed enough to need support, she said, can’t always be expected to follow up when told “go over there.” At the very least, a case manager or trusted service provider should arrange a “warm handoff” to a second provider.

According to Dr. Fatma Batuman, Medical Director of the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Women’s Health for the VA, women can now have all their appointments (except for some specialties) scheduled at the same place for the same day so they no longer have to travel repeatedly back and forth to get care.

Gaps remain, including the relative paucity of resources in rural and outlying areas such as Kern County. Veronica Lira of FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) resiliency training for service families said the program tries to bridge that gap the best it can be offering sessions via Skype and through other computer technology.

Caring for transgender clients remains new and sometimes confusing both to clinical staff and other vets like the woman in the audience who expressed her discomfort at having a male-to-female transgender vet participate in an MST support group. Policies to ensure sensitivity and the rights of all are still a work-in-progress. Dr. Susan Steinberg of the VA Ambulatory Care Center on Temple Street reported on the individual, couples, and group counseling afforded LGBT veterans as well as referrals for endocrinology, hormone treatment and speech therapy for transgender vets.

Veterans and the Courts

“Your best outcome is to be represented by a licensed, experienced attorney, which is what our court system was designed for,” said Margaret Little of the LA County Superior Court. In reality, access to legal representation is woefully inadequate not just for veterans but for all Americans of limited economic means. According to Little, in the court that handles probate and family issues, 80-90% of people have to represent themselves.

Many of women vets’ legal problems can be traced back to MST. While the diagnosis is widely recognized now, for years women suffering from PTSD related to sexual violence rather than combat received medical or administrative discharges that disqualified them from receiving VA services and other benefits. (Many men fell into this trap as well, having their PTSD falsely attributed to a preexisting “personality disorder.”) This is one of the reasons about 15% of the homeless vets on Los Angeles street are ineligible for VA benefits according to Dr. Carl McKnight of the LA County Department of Mental Health. The county and many nonprofits try to pick up the slack and do provide free services to any and all veterans, no matter the length of service or type of discharge. Lawyers including Kim have been able to represent some women in getting their discharges upgraded.

When MST or PTSD causes homelessness or substance abuse or other behavioral issues, it too often leads as well to loss of child custody. Vets go to Family Court to retain custody of their kids or to arrange visitation or get their children back. Stone cites the Valor Guidewhich lists organizations that provide free legal assistance to veterans. When it comes down to it, however, a woman in need may end up making dozens of phone calls only to find out not one organization has sufficient staff and resources to help her. Despite the crucial nature of custody proceedings, women vets often have no choice but to represent themselves.

Military Sexual Trauma CompensationRecognizing that it’s not enough but better than nothing, Little hired Kathleen Dixon to set up self-help services and family law facilitator offices in county courthouses. As court employees, facilitators have to remain neutral and advise both parties if asked. They can’t accompany a person into court, but they can provide explanations and guidance in navigating the process. Some of the organizations in the Valor Guide may provide higher levels of guidance when they lack funding to offer full representation. Family law facilitators are a presence in selected courthouses and will offer legal guidance at Patriotic Hall the fourth Friday of each month in the afternoon.

Hudson-Price wants all veterans to be aware of special protections they receive in criminal court–but only if the judge is made aware of the defendant’s military status. For example, under CA Penal Code 1170.9, veterans are eligible for probation or alternative sentencing if they can show their criminal act stemmed from a trauma-related condition such as PTSD. They can claim this benefit in any criminal proceeding, even if they aren’t docketed in the special veterans treatment court. If the court assigns treatment instead of jail or prison, veterans can get the charges entirely dismissed upon successful completion of that treatment. In addition, veterans picked up in the street should identify themselves as such to police or deputies who may in some cases be able to take the vet to the VA instead of to jail.

Hudson-Price drew attention to another legal problem homeless people face. When people are ticketed for minor quality-of-life offenses, due to their complicated lives they are likely to miss or not even know about a scheduled court date. This turns a small ticket into a $10,000 penalty and an arrest warrant. At HALO Citation Clinics, people can find out if they have warrants and can quickly clear any outstanding tickets. Clinics are held periodically at New Directions on the VA campus and at different nonprofits. Vets can find out more at Patriotic Hall.

“Whenever you go to court,” Dixon said, “identify yourself as a veteran” because new laws have increased a number of legal protections. There is now a statewide court form, the MIL-100, which officially notifies the court of military service. Anyone can file it–the veteran, a family member or friend or anyone else acting on her behalf.

All lawyers are required to donate at least 20 hours of pro bono (free) time, said Hudson-Price. She thinks we need to tell more personal stories about women vets, for example, how they desperately need help to be reunited with their children, in order to win the attention–and pro bono hours–of private attorneys.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

When it came time for the Employment and Education panel, Yolanda Shelton who had already told of her anger and frustration when being given the runaround was now able to express her gratitude. “I just want to hug her neck every time I see her,” she said, referring to panelist Maxine Anderson of the CA Employment Development Department.

“I have a passion for my job,” said Anderson who added that in her office, all staff have been trained so they can step in and help even if a veterans service navigator isn’t available. “We work on the whole person,” she said. If a vet isn’t ready for employment, her office doesn’t turn her away but figures out what services she needs and makes the referral. When someone is ready to work, Anderson doesn’t want to see vets stuck in $8/hour security and warehouse jobs. “We come out of the service with more skills than that.” She urges veterans to register with Cal JOBS where new listings are held up for 48 hours so that vets can see them a day before anyone else.

The Hero 2 Hired website lists openings from 30,000 military-friendly employers. (Don’t confuse it with any of the Hero 4 Hire sites that provide actors dressed as superheroes for parties.) This service initially served only National Guard and reservists but, regardless of what the website may still say, any vet can now register, add her MOS, and then see what jobs are available that match her skill set, said Ilka Davidson. “We don’t do rent-a-cop,” she added. “A vet who’s been a machinist should get $31/hour.” Applications are filed online. “Tech,” said Davidson. “You need to embrace it and utilize it no matter how much you hate it.” And an advantage to filing online instead of in person: they don’t know your age or what you look like.

But when everything is online, Lisa McGlory admits it can be hard to get in-person meetings with HR managers which is what she does as part of the 1,000 vets initiative of the small nonprofit America ICARE. She works with potential employers who express willingness to hire veterans but also say they aren’t sure where to find them or even how to act around them. She’s been asked, “Do I address a Marine differently than Army?” So she offers workshops to be sure employers are ready for vets as well as workshops in resume writing, interviewing, and other job preparation to be sure veterans are ready for employment from Day One.

College for Family Members

The children, spouse or domestic partner of a veteran may be eligible for a full tuition fee waiver at any California state college, according to Benoit, but will still pay for books and fees. There are four different categories of help with different eligibility requirements which can be checked here.

For all the serious content, this year’s summit ended on a celebratory note: letters of commendation from the governor, a gala dinner with music, dancing, and a fashion show. Women vets got to strut their stuff in professional outfits and accessories provided through the Working Wardrobe program that dresses vets for success when they go to job interviews and start new employment.

What Can You Do?

  • See the letter, below, prepared by Laura Lake of the Coalition for Veterans Land. Her Action Alert is California-specific but includes information that can be adapted to other states and for advocacy at the federal level.
  • Take the advice of Maricela Guzman who shared her personal experience. Guzman was raped during her Navy service and still copes, years later, with PTSD. She was always known for being highly responsible and driven to achieve but following her discharge, she spent years unable to function, not working, not going to school. She lost a marriage. She made a suicide attempt. Today, Guzman remains affected by the trauma and still receives treatment although she is in graduate school, and employed, and is well known as a speaker and advocate on the subject of MST. One interview didn’t go so well. Guzman walked out of the room and soon broke down in tears after being told, “You look normal. Are you sure you have PTSD?”

When you talk to survivors, she says, remember that “we are the experts. We are the voices.” People shouldn’t speak assuming they know best and without being self-critical. So here’s what everyone can do: “Listen,” Guzman says, “and stand in solidarity.”

ACTION ALERT! California AB 639

Eliminate Barriers to Permanent Supportive Housing For Veteran Families and Female Veterans with MST

Please send this by April 1, 2014 on your organization’s letterhead (or slightly revised to come from an individual).

TO: CalVet Undersecretary Lindsey Sin

FROM: [name of organization]

RE: Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Bond Act of 2014

As members of the veterans’ advocacy community, we wish to commend Undersecretary Sin for working with the Legislature to address the housing needs of veterans. In anticipation of the passage of this historic bond act, we seek to eliminate barriers to safe supportive housing for veteran families and for female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (in Los Angeles, more than half the homeless female veterans have experienced sexual trauma) through the regulations that will implement AB 639.

Most veteran housing has so far catered to the needs of single male veterans, not veteran families or the growing number of female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. California can once again lead the way by addressing this special need population by:

  • Including in the NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) veteran families at risk of homelessness or homeless rather than mandating chronic homelessness as defined by HUD. Currently, to qualify for VASH Vouchers (tenant or project-based) or Section 8 operating subsidies, a veteran must have a year of homelessness. Requiring chronic homelessness to qualify veteran families exposes children to a year of homelessness, a trauma that can scar a child and place him/her in foster care. We therefore ask that new guidelines be adopted that eliminate the chronic homeless requirement and add at-risk of homelessness, couch-surfing and homelessness to qualify for bond funds and VASH vouchers. As Housing First has demonstrated, getting these families into safe, supportive housing saves them added trauma and taxpayers additional costs.
  • Fair Housing: Currently over 50 percent of homeless women veterans are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. Their recovery from PTSD requires that they and their children live in safe, secure female veteran housing (similar to domestic violence shelters). Since no clear legal precedent exists permitting female-only housing for victims of military sexual trauma for permanent supportive housing, it is necessary that regulations implementing veteran housing funds authorize female-only permanent supportive housing as disability-based and in compliance with fair housing laws.
  • diane leferDesignate female veterans with children and MST victims, as a special need community. Currently there is no permanent supportive housing for female veterans with children in Los Angeles County. Housing developers need certainty that serving this population will be on a level playing field with traditional veteran housing. These developers need eligibility for state bond funds and/or VASH vouchers due to the high price of land in California and construction costs.

Diane Lefer

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