Posted on November 8, 2022 By Brian Buckwalter, Chris Mayhew, Kevin C. Miller

Jennifer Badger had been out of the Navy for more than a decade when the circumstances in her life led her into homelessness.

When she enlisted in May 2001, she was looking for a change and a way out of her hometown of Fulton, Missouri. She became an intelligence specialist and deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2002 on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

In 2005, she decided to transition back to civilian life. She had become a single mother and wanted to raise her son without worrying about deploying again.

In the years that followed her separation from the military, circumstances and choices led Badger down a troubled path of drug addiction, abusive relationships and depression. She went to prison in 2019 and got high the day she was released.

At that point, she said her family had given up on her.

“I lost everything,” Badger said. “I lost all three of my children. I lost everything but my life.”

With nowhere to go, she became homeless. She slept on friends’ couches. She continued to use drugs. She eventually nearly died from an overdose.

Badger’s story is one in a concerning trend among women veterans.

A growing problem

With women now comprising 15% of active-duty forces and 19% of reserve units—a number that continues to rise—they have become the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population.

Yet, the availability of services offered to women veterans at risk for homelessness has not kept pace with their increasing numbers.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, women transitioning from the military can face many challenges when returning to civilian life that put them at risk for homelessness: single parenting, domestic abuse, psychological aftereffects related to military sexual trauma (MST) or combat, substance abuse, employment and affordable housing.

Searching for help

Despite experts knowing the needs, many women may find it challenging to know where to go to find help.

This was the case for Army veteran Penni Lo’Vette Brown.

She said the post-traumatic stress and MST she suffered was initially untreated after she left the military.

“My marriage is something I was not prepared for,” Brown said.

There was domestic violence, and she needed to find protection for herself and her three young children. But she felt she had nowhere to turn.

“In 1999, I became homeless with three babies on my hip,” Brown said.

She made more than two dozen calls looking for a shelter that would allow her to bring her children. Brown said her children’s safety was paramount, and she’s not sure she would or could have left her husband without that assurance.

She finally found an emergency shelter in Santa Barbara, California, where she took her children. A month later, she moved to a different shelter in nearby Lompoc that offered access to permanent and affordable housing options. She entered the VA’s Veterans Readiness and Employment (formerly known as Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment) program, where she trained and became a barber. And after two months, she was able to move into an apartment near her children’s school using the Housing Choice Voucher Program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She later received treatment for PTSD from the VA.

For Badger, not long after her near-fatal overdose, she decided she was done and looked for any place that would help her.

“I woke up one day and just knew this was not me,” she said.

Badger had realized she was the same age her father had been when he died from a drug overdose and didn’t want her children to experience what she had gone through.

“I needed my kids to have a success story because my dad did not have a comeback story,” she said.

When she finally decided to seek help, she called any number she could find. In her search, Badger was eventually pointed to Welcome Home Inc., a homeless veterans program in central Missouri that receives financial support from the DAV Charitable Service Trust.

“I feel like if there was no Welcome Home,” Badger said, “I would probably still be homeless and using or back in prison or dead.”

Tammy Scott, a caseworker and the organization’s permanent housing program coordinator, was the one who answered the phone, picked Badger up and brought her in.

Scott said up to eight women can stay at the 34-bed facility. It has four permanent rooms designated for women in a locked hallway segregated from the men. Two additional flex rooms can accommodate families or women, depending on current demand. There’s 24/7 camera monitoring, too.

Scott said providing an environment where women feel safe is crucial to getting them help. Women who come to her program, more so than men, come from abusive relationships. They are more likely to have MST in their background or unmet mental health issues.

To escape homelessness, Brown said, women veterans with children do need the VA health care and benefits for themselves and state medical benefits for their children.