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Aid Sought for Homeless Female Vets

Caroline Contreras says a rape at Fort Dix, N.J., 20 years ago derailed her military career and sent her on an inexorable path of addiction and homelessness.

But what the 48-year-old veteran says she remembers most painfully is how her government let her down when she finally sought help.

Last year, Contreras showed up at the U.S. Veterans Administration facility in West Haven homeless and ready to sober up and deal with the trauma of the sexual assault by fellow servicemen.

She completed the VA's substance abuse treatment program, restored her self-worth after working with a therapist and shed her destructive coping skills. When she was ready to leave the program to rebuild her life, the VA had no place to send her.

Women-only shelter beds in the state were full. Transitional housing wasn't available. The best the VA could offer her was a bus ticket to a shelter in Massachusetts.

"It brought me back to the way I felt when I was raped," Contreras said. "I was insignificant. I wasn't worthy. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the respect of a male veteran."

Every day, female veterans who are homeless in the state confront barriers in a VA system where services and housing options for women lag in comparison to their male counterparts.

Veteran advocates say the VA needs to address the national disparity as 200,000 female veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many with combat-related stress and military sexual trauma -- risk factors for homelessness.

"Folks are surprised when you tell them about homeless female veterans. You typically don't think of women as veterans, nevermind homeless veterans, but it's a real problem that is starting to get attention," said Natalie Matthews, director of policy and information at CT Coalition to End Homelessness.

There are an estimated 8,000 homeless female veterans nationwide. Veterans advocates say women account for about 4 percent of the total homeless veteran population, meaning about 200 of the estimated 5,000 homeless vets in Connecticut are women.

Of the 550 transitional housing programs for male veterans in the country, only 300 can accept women, said Pete Dougherty, the director of homeless veterans programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA recognizes the problem and is making available more grants outside the VA system to develop more transitional and supportive housing programs for homeless women veterans, Dougherty said.

"We need more programs for women veterans and the VA has identified women as a priority for funding," Dougherty said.

Federal lawmakers have awoken to the problem.

Several bills introduced in Congress include development of affordable housing for female veterans and linking the VA with the Department of Defense to identify returning soldiers who are at risk for homelessness.

But even as the wheels of government begin to slowly turn, homeless women veterans in Connecticut continue to struggle to find accommodations.

Joy Kiss, who runs Home For the Brave in Bridgeport, turns away women veterans looking for a room in the all male, 33-bed transitional home.

"There is no place to refer them to in Connecticut. I know there is housing in Massachusetts," said Kiss, who has plans to open some type of supportive housing for women in Bridgeport.

At Columbus House in New Haven, a community-based transitional housing unit for 12 men and eight women, the turnover rate for beds is slow.

Residents stay on average a year, getting the skills and counseling they need while waiting for a housing voucher to move into their own apartments.

"There are waiting lists for transitional housing because things move at a snail's place as people wait to move on to permanent housing," said Alison Cunningham, the director of Columbus House.

"A woman is going to have a harder time whether she is a veteran or not, and I anticipate this is going to get worse before it gets better," she said.

At the state veterans home in Rocky Hill, where male veterans live in dormitory-style barracks, there is room for about only 20 women in a separate, secure wing. The home cannot take in women with children, said Linda Schwartz, the state commissioner of veterans affairs.

"During my military service, we weren't allowed to have children and be in the military. Now 70 percent of women veterans have children and we need to address the issue," said Schwartz, who served in Vietnam as a combat nurse.

Schwartz said the state has paid to house women veterans with children who sought help at the home. She is looking to convert vacant homes on the Rocky Hill campus into transitional housing.

"It's only going to grow," Schwartz said. "People don't realize that when people come home from war or out of the military, it's a big adjustment and some don't hit the ground running."

Establishing Support The plunge to homeless becomes harder to stop when the individual's support system collapses.

For Gladys Twarkins, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq War, it was triggered by the loss of her East Hartford home to a real estate scam and an injury during an air raid in southern Iraq. She slept in her car when she returned to Connecticut in 2005. Now she sleeps on her ex-husband's couch.

Shortly after she returned from Iraq, she told a clinician at the Newington VA that it was getting too cold to sleep in her car and that she needed a room temporarily.

"I asked her if she could get me in [the veterans home in Rocky Hill]; she gave me an application," said Twarkins, 53. She never filled out the application.

Air Force veteran Nissa LaPoint says a sexual assault at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts disconnected her from her support system and she became homeless.

In 2006, LaPoint, 33, was sleeping in her car at a rest stop on I-395 when she called then-Congressman Rob Simmons for help. The blankets she had wrapped around her were frozen to the window. Simmons, a decorated Vietnam veteran, sent an aide to her rescue. She eventually found housing with the help of John March, a state service officer for the American Legion.

"I got off active duty and they pretty much sent me on my way," LaPoint said. "When I joined, the recruiter told me the Air Force was a better way of life. I took that opportunity. He also told me the VA would always have a place to stay, a roof over my head."

For Johanna Montalvo, who joined the National Guard in Puerto Rico, her descent was touched off by drugs and the death of her father. She lives at the Friendship Center shelter in New Britain in rooms segregated from homeless men. She wants to move to a shelter or transitional housing closer to the VA in West Haven, where she attends counseling sessions.

"There are a lot of us out there and the VA doesn't know what's going on," said Montalvo, 35. "We could be out in the streets, in crack houses, corners of prostitution, and we'll find female veterans."

Kate Kelly, who works with women veterans for the Connecticut VA, said it took her six months to secure a housing voucher for a female veteran with three children living in a shelter.

Yet she doesn't think women veterans are being shortchanged.

"They have the same opportunities as women in the general population. The reality is that it is going to be tough either way if you are male or female veteran," Kelly said.

Finding Success Ultimately, Contreras did not board the bus to a shelter in Massachusetts. She ended upinsteadat the Beth-El Center, a shelter in New Milford, where she stayed until she received a housing voucher.

Today, she lives in an apartment in West Haven and returns to Beth-El every week to work as a residential counselor. She's become an advocate for women veterans, speaking out against the lack of housing in the state. She's spoken to groups in Washington, D.C., and community events in the state. Her goal is to see transitional housing for women veterans built in the state.

"It's an awful feeling when you've made up your mind to rebuild your life and you have nowhere to go," Contreras said.

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