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Homeless Women Veterans:
Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing

GAO-12-182, Published: Dec 23, 2011. Publicly Released: Jan 23, 2012.


What GAO Found

Limited VA data show the number of women veterans it has identified as homeless more than doubled, from 1,380 in fiscal year 2006 to 3,328 in fiscal year 2010. Although these data are not generalizable to the overall population of homeless women veterans, we identified some characteristics of these women. For example, almost two-thirds were between 40 and 59 years old and over one-third had disabilities. In addition, many of these women resided with their minor children.

HUD collects data on homeless women and on homeless veterans, but does not collect detailed information on homeless women veterans. Neither VA nor HUD collect data on the total number of homeless women veterans in the general population. Further, they lack data on the characteristics and needs of these women on a national, state, and local level. Absent more complete data, VA does not have the information needed to plan services effectively, allocate grants to providers, and track progress toward its overall goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. According to knowledgeable VA and HUD officials we spoke with, collecting data specific to homeless women veterans would incur minimal burden and cost.

Homeless women veterans were not always aware of veteran housing services, which posed a significant barrier to access, according to GPD programs we surveyed, service providers, agency officials, and experts we interviewed. Some VA Medical Center homeless coordinators reported challenges in reaching this population. However, VA has recently launched an outreach campaign to increase awareness that includes materials specific to homeless women veterans.

VA requires its staff to give homeless veterans a referral for shelter or short-term housing while they await placement in veteran housing; however, several homeless women veterans told us they did not receive such referrals. In addition, about 24 percent of VA Medical Center homeless coordinators indicated not having referral plans or processes in place for temporarily housing homeless women veterans while they await placement in HUD-VASH and GPD programs. According to our data analysis, women veterans waited an average of 4 months before securing HUD-VASH housing. In addition, about one fourth of GPD providers reported that women veterans had to wait for placement in their programs and the median wait was 30 days. Without referrals for shelter or temporary housing during these waits, homeless women veterans may be at risk of physical harm and further trauma on the streets or in other unsafe places.

More than 60 percent of surveyed GPD programs that serve homeless women veterans did not house children, and most programs that did house children had restrictions on the ages or numbers of children. In our survey, GPD providers cited lack of housing for women with children as a significant barrier to accessing veteran housing. In addition, several noted there were financial disincentives for providers, as VA does not have the statutory authority to reimburse them for costs of housing veterans’ children. Limited housing for women and their children puts these families at risk of remaining homeless.

Homeless women veterans we talked to cited safety concerns about GPD housing, and 9 of the 142 GPD programs we surveyed indicated that there had been reported incidents of sexual harassment or assault on women residents in the past 5 years. GPD providers also cited safety concerns as a barrier to accessing veteran housing. In response to a recent report by the VA Inspector General, VA has begun to evaluate safety and security arrangements at GPD programs that serve women. However, VA does not have gender-specific safety and security standards for its GPD housing, potentially putting women veterans at risk of sexual harassment or assault.

While VA is taking steps—such as launching an outreach campaign—to end homelessness among all veterans, it does not have sufficient data about the population and needs of women veterans to plan effectively for increases in their numbers as servicemembers return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, without improved services, women—including those with children and those who have experienced military sexual trauma—remain at risk of homelessness and experiencing further abuse.

Why GAO Did This Study

As more women serve in the military, the number of women veterans has grown substantially, doubling from 4 percent of all veterans in 1990 to 8 percent, or an estimated 1.8 million, today. The number of women veterans will continue to increase as servicemembers return from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these women veterans, like their male counterparts, face challenges readjusting to civilian life and are at risk of becoming homeless. Such challenges may be particularly pronounced for those women veterans who have disabling psychological conditions resulting from military sexual trauma and for those who are single mothers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has committed to ending homelessness among all veterans by 2015 and funds several programs to house homeless veterans. The two largest are the VA Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program, which provides transitional housing and supportive services; and HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), which is a joint program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and VA offering permanent supportive housing.

While these programs have expanded in recent years to serve more veterans, it remains unclear whether they are meeting the housing needs of all homeless women veterans. To respond to your interest in this issue, this report addresses (1) What is known about the characteristics of homeless women veterans, including those with disabilities? (2) What barriers, if any, do homeless women veterans face in accessing and using VA’s Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem and HUD-VA Supportive Housing programs?

For more information, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov.

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