Four years ago, Veronica Witherspoon was stationed in Baghdad, enduring roiling sandstorms and nearly 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 and desperate for a way out, she ran across a story on a military Web site about a new program for female veterans called Final Salute.
The shelter for female vets opened its doors in a quiet Fairfax County cul-de-sac in November. The group home, the brainchild of an Army captain who was once homeless, is one of a small but growing number of women-only shelters that have opened up across the country to cater to a rising number of women who have wound up on the street after their military service.
In recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made strides in a campaign to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Although 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 this month. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population.
“The increase of homeless women veterans is significant, and it does suggest that we have to address this as an emerging issue,” said John Driscoll, president and chief executive of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Officially, homeless female veterans number 3,328, a figure that doubled from 2006 to 2010, according to an estimate from the Government Accountability Office. The GAO says the data are incomplete and that the number is probably higher. Many of these homeless women are mothers, middle-aged or suffering from a disability.
Last year, the VA served an estimated 14,847 female veterans who were homeless, formerly homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, according to Stacy Vasquez, deputy director of the department’s 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. They are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems and to have suffered sexual trauma during their military service and have a greater risk of homelessness than their male counterparts, the report said.
“We have a demographic shift in the makeup of our fighting forces, and it’s starting to appear in homelessness, with more women leaving the military and becoming homeless,” 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.”
The federal government has poured millions of dollars into its transitional housing and permanent voucher program for low-income people and the disabled since 2008. In addition, the government spent $60 million last year on preventive help with mortgage or rent payments and other needs.
But 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 did not get referrals to community programs and that those who were eligible for a voucher could end up waiting months for an available slot.
Jas Boothe, the Army captain who founded Final Salute, lost her home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a month later she was diagnosed with adenoid cancer. When she asked the VA whether it had any help for single mothers, it had nothing to offer her.
It was like “a slap in the face,” she said.
Boothe, 34, ultimately got back on her feet. She remarried and has another baby and a career as a program manager for employment with the National Guard. Once she was reestablished, the first thing she wanted to do was create a refuge for women like herself.
“God put it in my head that I can do something,” she said. “I didn’t really have the money, but I thought: This is my calling.”
She sank $15,000 of her own money — taking a cash advance on her credit card — into the group home in an ordinary-looking brick Colonial within earshot of Interstate 66 traffic. An American flag flying outside and red and white impatiens and blue angelonia planted in the front yard are the only visual hints to the military veterans living inside.
The 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. The shelter can house up to eight women and children at a time and has a waiting list of 20.
In April, Witherspoon moved in, and she says she enjoys the camaraderie of the three other former soldiers and two children who are her roommates.
They recently cooked pasta and chicken, laughing about the overstuffed refrigerator and debating who was next up for KP — kitchen patrol — duty. Her roommates teased the diminutive Witherspoon about her sunny personality; her dimpled giggle is a near constant.
“I’ve got to make the best of a bad situation,” Witherspoon, 30, said.
“A bad situation is on the streets,” said Caroline Smith, 41, a property manager and resident who was washing dishes.
Sandra Strickland, 43, said she ended up at the house in November after she split with her husband, lost her job and was facing eviction. She served six years in the Army stateside during the 1991 Gulf War.
“There was a moment when I was like, ‘Where am I going to go?’ ” she said as she prepared spaghetti and salad for her kids, Heaven, 8, and R.J., 6. “I was just like, is this really real? Is this really happening? . . . I was seriously considering living in my car.”
Her lowest point came when she was about to lose her apartment and was sitting in the parking lot of a Home Depot on the phone with the VA, learning that no housing vouchers were available and realizing that the VA had little to give her but a list of homeless shelters.
“There was such a feeling of hopelessness,” she said. “What am I going to do if the VA can’t help me?”
Shortly after that, a friend connected her with Boothe, and she moved in. She is working again, as an exhibits coordinator for an aviation association.
“It’s been a saving grace,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t even have words. . . . It was just like a big burden had been lifted.”