The nation's celebration of the day we declared our independence is always a time of gratitude to our veterans. That's why the troubling reminder I received recently of the thousands of homeless female veterans seeking to regain their independence was particularly jolting. This message caused me to think differently about the holiday we celebrate today and the deeper meaning of the word independence.
The tradition of Independence Day celebrations goes back to when delegates of the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This federal holiday is marked by festivities, fireworks and family gatherings. In the midst of the red, white and blue, the dire straits in which homeless female veterans find themselves calls into question how we respond to the needs of those who are willing to risk all to ensure our independence - our military and our veterans.
The number of homeless female American veterans is on the rise (from 4 percent in 1990 to 8 percent in 2010) according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from March. As the current number of female veterans (1.8 million) increases with the conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of female veterans at risk of becoming homeless is expected to rise also.
The Unity program of Greater New Orleans has found that homelessness is not an immediate condition for female veterans. "When women first return home from war, they usually don't go directly to homelessness. They usually take a while," Executive Director Martha Kegel said. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Assistant Secretary W. Scott Gould has described homelessness as "really a symptom and the end step in a long stage of deterioration."
The recent GAO report lists special conditions or challenges of women's post-military-service adjustment that contribute to homelessness, including age and disability. The report found two-thirds of homeless female veterans were between 40 and 59 years old, more than one-third had disabilities, and many had the responsibility of young children. This complexity of circumstance was brought home to me only a week ago when a friend wrote a concerned note asking for information on resources that might help a wounded female warrior who has children with disabilities find housing. With more than one family member using a wheelchair, finding adaptive housing was proving very difficult.
According to a March posting in Vantage Point, the VA's blog, federal efforts to provide housing and health care support for female veterans have never been more critical. Based on Secretary Eric K. Shinseki's core conviction that "no one who has served this nation as veterans have should ever be living on the streets," the VA offers expanded services for female veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. These include supportive services for veterans' families, housing vouchers, a per-diem program and specialized health care and mental health services.
The real and immediate need to provide reliable, reachable and relational programs that help female veterans - indeed, all veterans - get the benefits, housing, child care, transportation and health care support they need to prevent and solve homelessness has long been the concern of community and faith-based organizations. The National Resource Directory (nationalresourcedirectory.org) lists 65 items under the search "homeless female veterans." Yet we each have a responsibility to those who answered the nation's call.
Less than 40 days ago, we respectfully remembered our fallen veterans on Memorial Day with pledges never to forget their sacrifice. Yet we do - I do. This July Fourth, the meaning of independence has been jarringly rearranged for me. Independence is not only about the noble cause of freedom to govern and worship, it is about self-subsistence and livelihood. It is about the choice to act on the debt we owe to those who have fought for our national defense. It is a recognition of the interdependence we share in our communities and President George W. Bush's reminder in his 2002 State of the Union address that "we are citizens, with obligations to each other ... ." Perhaps today I can do more than click a "donate" tab online. Perhaps I can think about how best to use my own time and even those empty bedrooms down the hall.
Lynda C. Davis is former deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.