Lily Casura’s research is shining light on the issue of homeless women veterans.
Women veterans seem to be lost in the shuffle.
Nobody believes I am a vet.
Women veterans are not even counted. It is even harder if you have children.
It meant sleeping on the floor of my parents’ house for over a year.
We are dealing with an ungodly amount of stress, shame and suffering.
These are some of the nearly 400 responses a remarkable researcher, Lily Casura in San Antonio, received when she posed questions to people in a Facebook forum she created about women veterans. The responses came in the first 24 hours after her post last year.
Her findings shed new light on the issue of homeless women veterans. She calls the result “coming out of the shadows” because, until her survey, “nobody had ever asked them, nobody had ever bothered.”
Her deep-dive, data-driven research reveals stunning statistics: of more than 2 million women veterans in the U.S., roughly 10% are living in poverty. Of those, Casura estimates that 13% to 15% are homeless “right now.” She reckons the nationwide number of homeless women veterans “not as high as 50,000 but close.”
In eight North Texas counties, there were about 3,300 women veterans in 2017 living in poverty, according to Casura, and between 420 and 484 were homeless. (Bexar County with San Antonio has the most women veterans in Texas, while Tarrant County is third and Dallas County fifth.)
Her poll showed that couch-surfing (sleeping on a series of friends’ couches) is the main way homeless women veterans cope, followed by staying in a dangerous relationship to have a roof over her head and, finally, sleeping in her vehicle.
Many of the women she surveyed work two or three jobs and are still homeless because two major crises hit them at once — for example, a house fire while caring for a child with special needs. These women aren’t counted when federal and state agencies allocate resources for veterans, Casura says, because “for these agencies they don’t exist — when somebody is developing a new shelter, will they include women with kids?”
A Harvard graduate, Casura became involved with veterans issues in 2005 when she began an email correspondence with a Marine major in Ramadi in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. That was a bad time and place for everyone. “He was wondering how 18- and 20-year-olds could cope” with what they experienced when deployed, she says.
In the early ’90s, Casura had treated herself for chronic fatigue syndrome and took the same approach to war veterans. “Say you have 12 symptoms of PTSD,” she says, “and you’re trying to triage yourself. You learn what matters most in your life to deal with, for instance, hypervigilance and nightmares. By the time you’re on No. 3, your life has improved.
While studying in grad school in Seattle in 2006 she created one of the first websites about PTSD (healingcombattrauma.com) and started writing about “healing and not losing hope.” And she started hearing about the plight of female veterans.
For Casura, they didn’t fit the skid-row stereotype many have about veterans — a grimy man in raggedy clothes holding a can and a cardboard sign at a freeway off-ramp.
Most assistance models were also geared toward male Vietnam-era vets so “there was a gross undercount of women veterans,” she says. Those models also estimated it would take about 10 years for a Vietnam-era vet to fall prey to homelessness, after such stress as PTSD, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, job loss and marriage breakup.
Casura found that about one-third of the women she surveyed became homeless within six months to a year after they left the military. “They weren’t prepared,” she says. “They didn’t get the right training, they didn’t have any savings, many were victims of sexual trauma.”
Far from acting defensively, the Veterans Administration welcomed her research and has begun to factor it into their strategies and programs for dealing with homeless veterans. According to Casura, “They said, ‘Thanks for doing this; it’ll help us out with our direction.'”
Casura, 48, now has a full-time job at the YWCA in San Antonio, but she continues to advocate for more services for female veterans, especially those who’ve been victims of sexual violence.
“It’s a different population that deserves our attention,” she says. “People don’t care enough. Some will start asking, what’s the use of serving in the military? Americans’ attention will fade. We’ve got to be more prepared.”