Homeless Vets: They're Not Just Single Men Anymore Overall, there are fewer homeless veterans these days. But that good news is tempered by the growing number of homeless vets with families, including many women.
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Homeless Vets: They're Not Just Single Men Anymore

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Homeless Vets: They're Not Just Single Men Anymore

Homeless Vets: They're Not Just Single Men Anymore

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Obama administration wants to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans by 2015. And the total number of veterans living on the streets has fallen by a third since 2010. That's about 25,000 fewer veterans without housing. But among some vets - men and women with children - homelessness is up. NPR's Quil Lawrence looks at what's being done to help them.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Every summer for the past 27 years, an event called Stand Down in San Diego has offered an escape for homeless veterans. It's a tent city set up for a long weekend with hot showers, new clothes and three meals a day. It feels more like a state fair than a soup line. It's mostly men - Vietnam era. But there are lots of families, too. For the kids, stand down is a bit like summer camp.

ALEX MORALES: They got the kid zone and everything. My kids leave out of here very happy. They look forward to coming here from last year.

LAWRENCE: Alex Morales served in the Army in the 1970s. His five children have grown up coming to Stand Down. They see their friends here. His wife, Roberta, says the family has come here for nine years running.

ROBERTA: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: (Speaking Spanish).

ROBERTA: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: Some years the family had transitional housing. Sometimes they had jobs. But they always needed some help. Most homeless people slip in and out of housing, one paycheck or one bit of bad luck away from sleeping on the street. Just getting out of the military into this tough job market can be enough to push a veteran over the line, and that often means their families, too.

TRACY STURGIS: We were having troubles with paying the rent. He got out of the Navy, and I was unemployed. I couldn't find work. I had two young sons.

LAWRENCE: Over by the kids tent, Tracy Sturgis was watching her son play. They've been coming to Stand Down every year since 2004. Sturgis reckons she's been homeless three times over 10 years. In the past it's been the veteran who falls down, and his wife and family end up homeless with him. Now, frequently, it's the woman who's the veteran. Kim Porter served eight years in the Navy.

KIM PORTER: I've only been, like, homeless for a month this time around.

LAWRENCE: This is the second time Porter's been to San Diego's Stand Down with her four-year-old son. Porter says the first time she was homeless was after getting out of the Navy and getting divorced. Then she started going to school through the G.I. Bill, which includes housing. But this summer she didn't take classes, so no housing stipend, and she was back on the street.

PORTER: It can happen to anyone, actually. I mean, there's a lot of veterans out here that I met - some girls in particular. You know, it's just a recession. It hits everybody.

LAWRENCE: But the recession hits women veterans worse. Unemployment is higher than for male vets. With more women than ever serving in the military, more of them end up homeless in a tough economy. A few other things about being female in the military might contribute. Baylee Crone is with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

BAYLEE CRONE: Things like sexual assault in the military, having a high unemployment rate, being disabled - women who have a screening for an anxiety disorder or PTSD - it's not necessarily a causal factor, but women veterans who are homeless tend to be experiencing those factors.

LAWRENCE: The Department of Veterans Affairs has made homelessness a priority, but for years the outreach focused on the veteran, not the family. Darcy Pavich directs Stand Down in San Diego.

DARCY PAVICH: If the veteran's in one of our programs and they relapse and breaks policy of the program and their family's with them we have to through the whole family out because the VA's paying for the veteran to get the services, and then we have to find the supportive services for the families.

LAWRENCE: The VA is funding programs for families, including $300 million announced just last month. It's part of the housing-first approach. That means getting vets safe and dry before worrying about other problems like drug and alcohol abuse. Pavich credits that approach with the recent progress, but she's not sure about the White House goal of ending chronic homelessness among vets by next year.

PAVICH: I think what they've done is they've made a great start recognizing that if we can get people off the streets and into a place, we've made step one. There's another hundred steps that still have to happen.

LAWRENCE: Pavich says once the vets are inside, they need plenty of help getting the skills and resources for them and their families to stay off the streets for good. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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