Ginger Miller, left, smiles as Tymia Wiggins, a Navy veteran, is overcome with grateful emotion. Miller is a former homeless veteran who now helps other homeless veterans. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the fellowship hall of her Southeast Washington church, Ginger Miller stood before a room of about 15 female veterans and their children and began to tell her story.

“My name is Ginger Miller, and I am a Navy veteran, and I put this Christmas party together today for you,” she said, looking at the group of strangers.

Like many of the women in the room, Miller, now president and chief executive of the nonprofit group John 14:2 Inc., has been in tough spots. Almost two decades ago, she was discharged from the Navy for medical reasons and eventually found herself homeless.

(Photos: Faces of veteran homelessness)

“When you get out, you don’t have that security blanket anymore,” she said, referring to housing and other benefits the military provided her.

In 1992, Miller, who was a boatswain’s mate third class, left the Navy after four years. Her husband, William, a Marine corporal, had left the service 18 months earlier after deciding not to reenlist. William had been promised a job in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Philadelphia. But budget cuts eliminated the opening, and the couple and their 3-year-old son, William Jr., went to live with Miller’s parents in Hempstead, N.Y., her home town.

“I was lucky that I had family to go home to,” she said.

But that changed, too.

Another relative with three small children needed the room, so the Millers had to leave. They lived in what Ginger Miller describes as “substandard conditions” — at one point, in their car.

They finally settled into a one-bedroom basement apartment where they were able to do some minor renovations to make it feel more like a home for their son.

Miller said she would ask herself: “How do you excel? He deserves better.”

Using her veteran’s benefits, she enrolled full time at Hofstra University in Hempstead. She also worked three part-time jobs.

“I really didn’t have time to think about the conditions that I was in, because I was so busy trying to get out,” she said.

Miller graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. After five years as a bank loan officer, she decided to start John 14:2, which helps veterans and their families who are experiencing the challenges that lead to homelessness.

“I decided to create John 14:2 because God was telling me to do something for veterans who did not have a strong support system the way my husband did,” she said. The group was founded in April 2009.

The name comes from Scripture: “In my father’s house there are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

Her organization has helped more than 100 veterans and their families through rent assistance, referral services, and food and toy distributions. Now Miller is looking for properties in the District and surrounding areas to create affordable housing for veterans. John 14:2 works with the Washington VA Medical Center,
AMVETS, Prince George’s County, and the federal and Maryland departments of veterans affairs.

“I just thank God that I am one of the blessed ones,” Miller said. “My place is to help and be a support system.”

John 14:2 has expanded into more than she envisioned, she said, including Women Veteran’s Interactive, a division serving female veterans. Miller said that part hits home for her because “I am a woman who is a disabled veteran and was once homeless.” She said she has severe migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder, and back and knee problems.

At the Christmas celebration Thursday, the women were treated to a luncheon and shopped from tables full of clothes, hats, coats and toys donated by organizations and individuals. Each women chose two purses from the organization Beauty-in-a-Purse, one of which was filled with words of inspiration and cosmetics.

Johanna Chamberlain, 32, of Southeast picked up Christmas gifts for her three daughters and the baby she is expecting.

“I am so grateful for people like her,” she said.

Chamberlain, a Navy veteran, was homeless for three years. Nine months pregnant, she is now jobless and is facing eviction.

“If it wasn’t for Miss Ginger, my daughters wouldn’t have birthday or Christmas presents,” she said of her 11-year-old twins, who celebrated their birthday this month.

Tomiko Miller, 30, and her daughter Ja’Nae, 9, left with bags full of sweaters, jackets, toys and a pair of boots.

“Everything she got this Christmas was donated,” Tomiko said of her daughter.

Tomiko and Ja’Nae live in a transitional apartment for single women and children. Tomiko said she has been unemployed for three years. She is now enrolled in the National Guard and will be attending college next year to study education.

“It’s nice being in a room with people who are on the same level,” she said of the other veterans. “I felt really comfortable and was able to laugh and smile a little more.”

Ginger Miller says peer-to-peer interaction is crucial for female veterans. Meeting veterans and their families through John 14:2 helped her cope in her own life. Her husband has PTSD, and her work with the group showed her she wasn’t the only one dealing with a husband with the disorder, she said.

“I kept myself in a prison for 20 years,” she said. “That’s why I tell my story, so women will know that they are not alone. We’re meeting women veterans where they’re at.”

Miller has spoken as an advocate for veterans on numerous panels. She is a member of the Maryland Commission for Women and the Maryland Caregivers Support Coordinating Council and was instrumental in organizing the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs and the first Prince George’s County Veteran Stand Down and Homeless Resource Day.

In 2012, Miller hopes to raise funds to expand the organization’s projects and initiatives. She paid for the Christmas party out of her own money.

But most of all she wants to “continue to serve those who have served.”