By Eric Tucker and Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Misha McLamb helped keep fighter jets flying during a military career that took her halfway around the world to the Persian Gulf. But back home, the Navy aircraft specialist is barely getting by after a series of blows that undid her settled life.
She was laid off from work last year and lost custody of her daughter. She's grappled with alcohol abuse, a carry-over from heavy-drinking Navy days. She spent nights in her car before a friend's boyfriend wrecked it, moving later to a homeless shelter where the insulin needles she needs for her diabetes were stolen.
She now lives in transitional housing for homeless veterans - except the government recently advised occupants to leave because of unsafe building conditions.
"I wasn't a loser," McLamb, 32, says. "Everybody who's homeless doesn't necessarily have to have something very mentally wrong with them. Some people just have bad circumstances with no resources."
Once primarily male-veteran problems, homelessness and economic struggles are escalating among female veterans, whose numbers have grown during the past decade of U.S. wars while resources for them haven't kept up. The population of female veterans without permanent shelter has more than doubled in the last half-dozen years and may continue climbing now that the Iraq war has ended, sending women home with the same stresses as their male counterparts - plus some gender-specific ones that make them more susceptible to homelessness.
The problem, a hurdle to the Obama administration's stated goal of ending veterans' homelessness by 2015, is exacerbated by a shortage of temporary housing specifically designed to be safe and welcoming to women or mothers with children. The spike comes even as the overall homeless-veteran population has gone down, dropping by nearly 12 percent to about 67,500 between January 2010 and January 2011, officials say.
"It can't get any worse," McLamb says matter-of-factly, "'cause I've already been through hell."
Veterans' homelessness, the subject of a March congressional hearing, has received fresh attention amid government reports documenting the numbers and identifying widespread flaws in buildings that shelter veterans.
"I think it's very clear that women veterans in particular lack the services they need," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview.
Female veterans make up about 8 percent of all veterans, or about 1.8 million, compared with just 4 percent in 1990. The number of homeless female veterans has more than doubled, from 1,380 to 3,328, between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2010, according to a December U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found many with young children and nearly two-thirds between ages 40 and 59.
A new report from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general examining veteran housing that receives VA grants found bedrooms and bathrooms without locks, poorly lighted hallways and women housed in facilities approved for men only. Nearly a third of the 26 facilities reviewed didn't have adequate safety precautions. One female veteran and her 18-month-old son were placed in the same facility as a male veteran who was a registered sex offender.
Female service members, who in wars with increasingly blurred front lines return with post-traumatic stress disorder, face unique challenges, advocates say. Many have suffered sexual assault and remain too traumatized to share common space with men. Many are single mothers struggling to find housing for themselves and their children. They're also more likely to be jobless: Unemployment for female veterans who've served since September 2001 was 12.4 percent last year, slightly higher than for their male counterparts.
Michele Panucci, a psychologist who treats women with military sexual trauma at a women-only VA clinic in Nashville, said traumatic experiences in the military can be a barrier against turning to the VA for help. "If it was authority that you don't like because of what happened to you in the military, you can then associate that with the VA or other helpful authorities," she said.
The VA says it's making progress.
The proposed VA budget calls for, among other things, $300 million for grants and technical assistance to community nonprofits to help veterans stay in their homes or find alternate housing. The department is increasingly focused on preventing veterans from becoming homeless and helping families stay together when possible, said Pete Dougherty, executive director of the VA's homeless veterans initiative office.