“I’ll guarantee to you is that everybody, whether they want to admit it or not, they’re a heartbeat away of being homeless,” says Kendel Scaffe, a former U.S. Marine, as she makes her way to a bus stop.
Although she uses a cane to walk, Scaffe’s steps are sure, determined, and measured. She has donned her dark blue Marine ballcap, emblazoned with “WOMAN VETERAN” stitched across the crown in gold letters.
Scaffe is one of about 10,000 female military Veterans who call San Antonio “home.” Only, she didn’t have one. For years.
“Bad things happen to good people,” she remarks. “You have the pride that you’re a Marine, whether you’re on the streets, or in a house. You’re a Marine. You can handle it,” she adds.
While Scaffe was busy finding stability in her life, her adopted city, San Antonio, was being recognized for its efforts to help the homeless. A city publication listed the city’s high achievement:
“In January 2015, Mayor Ivy Taylor signed on to the national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, and on May 9, 2016, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed the City of San Antonio had effectively ended Veteran homelessness.”
Scaffe scoffs when she hears that and believes many of the homeless Veteran women are flying below the radar.
She says she hopped from one family member’s couch to another, or slept in cars as she searched for work. The military trained her for survival. And that training, she says, keeps her and her fellow women Veterans, off the streets.
“They (female Veterans) think they can push through it. Because women are told, ‘just push through the pain; you push through the hard times,’ and as a result when they get out they don’t have a job, or they can’t find a job because they’re experiencing mental health problems,” says Scaffe.
Those problems include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experts say since more women serve in combat roles, they leave the service with combat trauma, in some cases coupled with sexual harassment they experienced while working alongside their male counterparts. Those scars make adjusting to civilian life much harder.
Researcher Lily Casura has spent years studying homelessness, especially among women Veterans.
“They start to struggle immediately, within the first six months, within the first year,” says Casura.
“There are even ones who are struggling before they leave the military, as they anticipate they have nowhere to go,” she adds.
Casura says being “off the streets” means female homeless Vets are being under-counted and under-served by the organizations who seek to help them.
In Military City, USA, Casura estimates the homeless female Veteran population at more than 300, and nearly all of them are invisible.
Katie Herrera, a social worker with the Veterans Administration, agrees.
“I think for women, it’s obviously a scary and much more vulnerable position to be in, being out and alone. They try to do everything they can to utilize every resource they can before they actually have to be out on the streets,” said Herrera.
We joined Herrera and some other retired servicemembers working for the Veterans Administration for the annual “Point in Time” count. Hundreds of volunteers hit the streets in San Antonio, part of a nation-wide, 24-hour period in January to seek out and identify the homeless and “count” them in their camps or on the streets.
“The big piece is really connecting people with resources, making sure people are aware they don’t have to stay out on the street,” says Herrera.
The VA has a Community Residential Care Program that will help place Veterans with affordable housing as well as programs to help them become more financially and emotionally stable.
It’s a cold January night as our group comes upon an older gentleman, going through a garbage can near the gas pumps of a truck stop off Interstate-35. His grey hair is long, competing with a long, wispy beard.
“So, you’re homeless?” Herrera politely asks.
He stops his rummaging long enough to notice the small crowd that has gathered around him.
He and Herrera make direct eye contact. His eyes appear to be smiling; hers appear warm and compassionate.
“Homeless? Dang right!” he exclaims.
“Would you mind answering a few questions for us?” asks Herrera.
“I’ll answer anything you want,” he responds.
This is a Point in Time contact: where information and some personal items are exchanged, the individual given an opportunity to get assistance, and a barrage of questions are asked and answered. We find out our homeless man isn’t a Veteran, but says he has plenty of respect for those who’ve served.
He shakes hands and accepts a blanket before moving on.
Herrera says the chances of finding a female Vet is nearly impossible during the Point in Time search.
“I don’t want to see anyone on the street, especially not a Veteran,” she says as she lights up a dark alley with her flashlight.
She added, “True homeless women won’t panhandle. They will find a way to eat, find shelter, have clothing. They will find it. But in the process, they don’t want anybody to know they’re a Veteran, because they feel ashamed they are in this situation.”
Back at the bus stop, Scaffe tells us volunteers would’ve never found her.
And even if they did, Scaffe technically does not count as homeless: That’s because the federal government has changed the official meaning over the years. Couch-surfing or staying with relatives, like Scaffe did, is not considered “homeless.”
Scaffe says it should be for a female Veteran’s sake.
“It’s a vicious circle and it’s very hard to break,” she said. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I don’t like it.”
Scaffe has been getting help and a home through the VA’s Community Residential Care Program since 2012. She encourages all Veterans to reach out to their local VA facility.