CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – Northampton, Mass. (WWLP)
Women veterans are the fastest growing segment of the military and they’re also the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
The Soldier On home in Northampton on the campus of the VA Medical Center is a second chance for the 12 women who live there.
Constance Zamora, an Air Force Veteran, told 22News, “It’s literally saved my life. it’s changed my life.”
The women are all veterans and each ended up homeless after serving their country.
Denise Jefferson, an Air Force Veteran, told 22News, “I went into the service because my father was in the service and my grandfathers and I was keeping up the stuff.”
Jefferson said, “I was literally on the street. When I walked in here I had a paper bag.”
Some were sexually assaulted during their time in the service, many suffer from mental illness and substance abuse.
Dawn Lehouiller, an Army Reserve veteran, said, “I ended up committing crimes to support my drug habit I did some time in jail.”
With few resources for women veterans and an overwhelming stigma towards their issues, it took these women years to find the help they need.
Katie Doherty with Soldier On’s Women Program said, “Women are not served the way that men are served.”
This inequality something that isn’t lost to the Veterans Administration, but change has come slowly.
Jim Seney, a program manager at the VA of Central and Western Massachusetts, said, “In a real male dominated culture we’ve really come a long way. There’s this misconception that women don’t go to the front lines but they are supplying to front lines so they are right there they are experiencing military trauma that is a misconception that they don’t have, they do and the after effects of that can be just as devastating for women as for men.”
The VA has hired a women’s veteran care coordinator and is pushing for more funding to address the issue.
Soldier On, which is a non profit organization, plans to add 16 more beds to its program for women and open up their units to veterans with children.
Lehouiller said, “I think the stigma with women is that especially in the military is that women are supposed to be responsible not supposed to have problems we’re not supposed to be homeless we’re supposed to be well put together and they don’t realize we’re people too things happen and we need help too.”