WASHINGTON - Four years ago Veronica Witherspoon was stationed in Baghdad, enduring roiling sandstorms and near-daily rocket fire as she worked as a Navy petty officer at Camp Victory.
By January, she had left the military, lost her job as a civilian contractor, split with her husband, and ended up virtually homeless, bunking with family members. Deeply ashamed of her predicament but desperate for a way out, she ran across a story on a military website for a new program for female veterans called Final Salute.
The women-only shelter for veterans opened its doors in November in a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Fairfax County, Va. The group home, the brainchild of an Army captain who was once homeless herself, is one of a small but growing number of shelters that have opened up across the country in recent years to cater to a rising number of female veterans who have wound up on the streets after their military service.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has made strides in its five-year campaign to end veteran homelessness.
Though the overall number of homeless veterans declined 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, the number of homeless female veterans is increasing, the VA said in a draft report last month, and these women are now the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veterans population.
Officially, homeless female veterans number about 3,328, a figure that doubled from 2006 to 2010, according to an estimate from the Government Accountability Office, although the GAO says the data is incomplete and the actual number is likely higher.
Last year the VA served an estimated 14,847 female veterans who were homeless, formerly homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, said Stacy Vasquez, deputy director of its homeless veterans initiative.
The VA acknowledged in the report that there was an “acute’’ need to improve services for the growing number of female veterans, because they are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, to have suffered sexual trauma during their military service, and to have a greater risk of homelessness than their male counterparts.
“We have a demographic shift in the makeup of our fighting forces and it’s starting to appear in homelessness,’’ said Daniel Bertoni, the GAO’s director of disability issues. Traditionally, “a lot of the systems of support have been geared toward men. A lot of these shelters don’t support children.’’
More than 60 percent of the transitional housing programs are not suitable for families, Bertoni said. His report found that many women who contacted the VA for help didn’t get referrals to community programs or that those who were eligible for a voucher could end up waiting for months for a slot.
Jas Boothe - the Army captain who founded Final Salute - lost her home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a month later was diagnosed with adenoid cancer. When she turned to the VA to ask whether it had any help for single mothers, she said, it had nothing to offer her.
It was like “a slap in the face,’’ she said.
Boothe, 34, ultimately got back on her feet with a new husband, another baby, and a career as a manager with the National Guard. Once she was reestablished, the first thing she wanted to do was to create a refuge for women like herself.
Her program - funded by private donors - gives residents two years to get back on their feet. They must commit to job training and, if working, contribute 20 percent of their income toward food and utilities.