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Female Veterans Struggle To Stay Off Streets

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Female Veterans Struggle To Stay Off Streets

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Female Veterans Struggle To Stay Off Streets

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More than 240,000 female service members have been deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for some female veterans, reintegrating to civilian life, and trying to find employment, has been difficult. The Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged that women are nearly four times as likely as men to end up homeless.

Gloria Hillard reports now on the outreach efforts in Los Angeles to get them off the streets.

GLORIA HILLARD: People walked right by former Army Private Margaret Ortiz when she was sleeping on the street, unaware that at one time, drugs and alcohol weren't the most important things to her. It was her comrades. She drove a truck in Iraq, often volunteering for the missions no one else wanted.

Private MARGARET ORTIZ (U.S. Army): To help my soldiers and protect them. They were my family at the time.

HILLARD: Today, the 28-year-old Ortiz is living at a transitional housing facility for women veterans at U.S. Vets, a nonprofit in Long Beach, California. She's one of the lucky ones.

Dr. DIANE WEST (Advanced Woman's Program, U.S. Vets): A lot of the women, they have no idea that there's a place for them. And they're living in their car with their kids. It's really, really sad.

HILLARD: Dr. Diane West runs the advanced women's program here. There are 43 women in residence, and there's a waiting list.

Dr. WEST: Women are being discharged from the military without the resources or the understanding of where to go to get jobs - big thing. And most of them coming here have some kind of mental problem.

HILLARD: Margaret Ortiz, a woman with a lip piercing and gray-green eyes, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After returning from the war zone, where the former truck driver dodged mortar fire and IEDs, it was the little things that got to her - like stoplights, and trash on the street.

Pvt. ORTIZ: 'Cause usually they would have a IED, or they would put them in Coke cans. And so that just makes me nervous - and big crowds.

HILLARD: Ortiz pauses and looks out the window. She says talking about what happened in Iraq can sometimes bring on nightmares.

Pvt. ORTIZ: You just want to forget. And some of the stuff that happened, you'll just take it to your grave 'cause you don't want to talk about it.

HILLARD: Paul Rieckhoff is the founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. He says difficulty in finding a job, coupled with lingering health and psychological problems, are contributing to the rise in homelessness among female veterans.

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association): I think that our entire military and veterans health-care system has been caught flatfooted by the influx of new veterans, and it's even more urgent for women.

HILLARD: According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 homeless female veterans - double from a decade ago. Pete Doherty is the director of the VA's Homeless Veterans Program.

Mr. PETE DOHERTY (Director, Homeless Veterans Program, VA): Well, what we do know about the women that we're seeing, and the younger women, is they seem to be at greater risk than males to end up in the ranks of the homeless.

HILLARD: Doherty says the VA is now targeting women, especially those with children, for priority funding assistance.

Michelle O'Neil works for the VA's Outreach Program in West Los Angeles. At least three times a week, clipboard in hand, she hits the boardwalk of Venice Beach, looking for homeless veterans.

Ms. MICHELLE O'NEIL (VA Outreach Program): How you doing?

Unidentified Woman: Good. How are you doing?

Ms. O'NEIL: I'm fine.

HILLARD: A former vet herself, O'Neil senses the young woman drumming is also a veteran.

Ms. O'NEIL: What branch of service were you in?

Unidentified Woman: Army active duty.

Ms. O'NEIL: Me, too. Where are you staying right now?

Unidentified Woman: I sleep outside.

Ms. O'NEIL: Okay.

HILLARD: O'Neil thinks she'd be a good candidate for the VA's transition assistance program, but she knows it may take some convincing.

Ms. O'NEIL: It's like I have to reconnect them with the human side - that hey, yeah, it's okay, you're Army strong, you're Marine, but we all need help.

HILLARD: Today, there are about 1,700 women in VA residential programs. Many more like the young drummer are still struggling.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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