Advocate Serah Blain, left, hugs Sandra Keeme, a homeless Navy veteran, at MANA House, a transitional housing facility for veterans in Phoenix, Ariz. The women's shelter opened this year and is seeking a stable funding source. (David Wallace / The Arizona Republic)
PHOENIX — The population of female veterans in the U.S. is small, but the challenges the women face to stave off homelessness are significant.
Sandra Keeme, 35, served in the Navy for seven years. She was deployed three times — twice to Iraq, once to Japan.
During her deployment to Japan, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow service member. She developed trust and anger issues and quickly spiraled into alcoholism after she left the Navy. She eventually became homeless.
Keeme is one of six women living at a transitional housing facility for veterans in downtown Phoenix that is run by the Madison Street Veterans Association, a local nonprofit that helps homeless vets. She has post-traumatic stress disorder as a secondary effect of military sexual trauma. PTSD and military sexual assault are common among women in the military and are increasingly gaining national attention as more women step forward.
“We’ve all been through kind of the same situation. Being a part of the veteran community is like you have automatically an extended family,” Keeme said, sitting on her bunk bed in the veteran women’s center at MANA House, which stands for Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force.
“We don’t know how many women veterans are homeless in the Valley. I think one of the biggest reasons we don’t know is because of the domestic violence that is prevalent in the veteran world.”
“Especially female veterans, there’s not that many of us, but there’s a lot more than there used to be,” she said. “We can identify with being surrounded by guys and being kind of taken for granted sometimes.”
Female veterans make up about 17 percent of the veteran population in the U.S., according to the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services.
MANA House provides transitional housing for homeless male veterans and opened its doors to women earlier this year. It is one of the only resources specifically provided for homeless female veterans in the Phoenix area. There is room for up to 16 women there.
The long-term viability of the women’s shelter at MANA House is unclear because it does not have a stable funding source. There are several fundraising efforts to pay for the women’s space until the organization’s leaders can find a stable source of money.
Sean Price, homeless-veterans-services coordinator for the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, indicated that the number of female veterans who become homeless is relatively small. But he said there are “unique challenges and needs for the women that do become homeless.”
“We don’t know how many women veterans are homeless in the Valley. I think one of the biggest reasons we don’t know is because of the domestic violence that is prevalent in the veteran world,” said Price.
At MANA House, the women openly talk about menopause and other female issues. The area looks more like a hospital emergency room, with pastel-colored plastic curtains used as partitions between bunk beds. But for the women, it’s a safe haven where they can work to stabilize themselves and work to find a home.
“This is really the only place for women, and they barely have room for us. We share the military. We share the homelessness,” said Bonnie Diaz, who served in the Air Force from 1987 to 1994.
Diaz has been at MANA House since March and is on the hunt for a job. She lost her job and became homeless after her fiance, with whom she was searching for a new place to live, was arrested.
Diaz is the “squad leader” of the women’s area at MANA House, responsible for keeping the living space in order and helping other residents. The men’s center operates in the same way, with residents divided into squadrons that rotate chores.
Greater Phoenix is gaining national attention for its efforts to combat veteran homelessness, regardless of gender or family status. Most prominently, President Obama gave a nod to Phoenix during his speech on middle-class homeownership last month, saying the area is on track to end chronic homelessness among veterans by mid-2014.
It is difficult to find funding for just female veterans, but there are general resources designed for veterans that are available for both women and men, Price said.
Project H3: Vets is a program coordinated by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, which works with community organizations to use federal housing vouchers to get chronically homeless veterans into permanent housing. The veterans also receive services to help them get back on their feet, such as substance-abuse counseling and behavioral-health care.
The program has been highlighted by federal agencies, including the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, as a model for other areas combating veteran homelessness. After Obama’s speech in Phoenix, three regions — Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City and Philadelphia — challenged Phoenix in a race to end veteran homelessness.
Terry Araman, program director at the Madison Street Veterans Association, said he wants to keep the women’s center at MANA House a transitional place that could provide women with the specific services they need until they can find housing on their own.
Keeme, for example, needs a place to stay while she addresses legal issues with a DUI charge.
By October, she wants to move to Prescott, Ariz., and start a new life. MANA House is a dry house, meaning no alcohol consumption is allowed. Keeme receives substance-abuse counseling and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“Constantly, since we opened the doors, I’ve had people ask, and women veterans ask: ‘You have a space for men; when are you going to have a place for women?’” Araman said.
The space for 16 women in MANA House costs between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. He intended the women’s center to be supported the same way MANA House was, through a Veterans Affairs funding model, but he was not able to obtain the same funding.
While Araman works on securing a stable funding source for the women’s shelter, organizations and individuals are raising money.
“As a nation, it’s our obligation to make sure we’re stepping up and not shortchanging women veterans, because I think that’s what has happened in the past,” Araman said. “They’re a small group and maybe not as vocal, maybe not as prominent as the men veterans. But still, they deserve all the support we give to the men.”