By BOB TEDESCHI
New York Tines, January 22, 2009
A FAR-REACHING network of private and public agencies serves homeless veterans in Connecticut, with group homes and caseworkers helping former military members live normally again. But that network now faces the fallout from a signal change in the nation’s military policy — namely, the shift to female combatants. The number of homeless female veterans is also growing, with fewer resources to help them.
Earlier this month, though, an organization that runs two group homes for homeless male veterans in Bridgeport sought to build a similar facility in Norwalk for women. The organization, the Applied Behavioral Rehabilitation Institute, was outbid in its effort to buy city land for the project, but the leaders of the initiative said that if it did not happen in Norwalk, they would find someplace else.
“It’s going to happen,” said Joy Kiss, the organization’s executive director. “We will make it happen.”
Ms. Kiss, a former nurse, stood with her arms folded near the entrance of Homes for the Brave, one of the Bridgeport facilities, which houses 42 veterans who stay in dormitory-style rooms. The home has served roughly 500 veterans since opening in 2002.
Even including the 20 or so beds that would make up the new women’s home, Ms. Kiss described a grim calculus for female veterans. Ten years ago women represented 3 percent of homeless veterans, she said, compared with 5 percent now. About 180,000 female troops now serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We know that when they return, the need will be there,” Ms. Kiss said.
Most of the women who would be candidates for the new home are frequent visitors to the Errera Community Care Center, a Department of Veterans Affairs outpost in West Haven that offers counseling, employment help and other services. On a frigid Tuesday this month, the center’s bright hallways filled with the smell of stuffed cabbage, boiled peas and coleslaw, as dozens of men and women shed heavy coats and lined up for a free lunch served on disposable plates.
Five women took their lunch in Meeting Room 12, after finishing a group discussion for female veterans. All but one declined to provide their full names, to avoid embarrassment.
Among them was Lavalla, who characterized herself as being “one step away from homelessness,” and who now lives in the basement of her brother-in-law’s home as she recovers from breast cancer. A pediatric dental assistant in her late 30s , she has been hospitalized twice for emotional issues and has not worked steadily since her diagnosis.
To Lavalla’s right sat Stephanie. A former marine who served in Lebanon and Grenada, she has fought homelessness and psychiatric issues for about eight years, but has recently received a federal housing grant and moved into her own apartment.
Dorothea Trueheart, 53, a former nurse, said she had been raped in the Army, and as a child. “I’m bipolar, manic-depressive,” she said. “I get seizures. I’m a diabetic. I have anger issues.”
Now that she has moved into her own apartment in Bridgeport, things have improved. “I can cook and clean and take my medication much more than when I was homeless,” Ms. Trueheart said. “When I’m off my medication it’s like I’m in a tornado, and I always get arrested for assault. I become what they call ‘a danger.’”
After the meeting, Laurie Harkness, the Errera Center’s director, said those who offer social services to veterans have begun devising more ways to integrate veterans in the community. “People heal by living in the community,” she said.
Ms. Harkness, a career social worker with a penchant for hiring former homeless veterans, said she expects to find little resistance among communities where the Applied Behavioral Rehabilitation Institute might build the women’s home.
Still, she said she is braced for the possibility. “We actually bring up property values because we’re good neighbors,” she said. “But it’s the stigma. It’s so powerful.”