In veterans’ supportive housing, homeless women need gender-specific options

May 23, 2017

This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who sacrificed their lives for our country, by caring for veterans who survived but carry scars from their service.

One veteran we’ve worked with, whom I’ll call “Laura” in this post, was sexually assaulted while in the Army. As a result, she grapples with post-traumatic stress, and she became homeless after she left the service.

She is not alone. Women veterans are the fastest growing demographic among America’s homeless population, and they’re more than three times more likely than other women to be homeless. And more than half of homeless women veterans were sexually assaulted during their military service. Programs do exist to help them, but many programs overlook their unique requirements.

This disconnect is most glaring in permanent supportive housing, which combines affordable housing with wrap-around supportive services. That’s because housing geared for veterans is still overwhelmingly male (since men still make up the majority of veterans). This presents significant problems because living surrounded by men can not only worsen the mental health conditions of veterans like Laura but also put them at risk for further harm. But there are no minimum safety standards for housing homeless women veterans. And gender-specific safety accommodations, while standard in temporary housing, often are not provided in permanent facilities.

As a result, many women stay away, forgoing critical supports like mental health care and affordable rent. In Laura’s case, her VA psychiatrist explicitly told her not to move into veterans-only housing in Los Angeles a few years ago, saying it wasn’t safe for her because it provided no separate areas for women. Living in such an environment, the doctor said, would exacerbate her conditions related to military sexual trauma (MST).

Laura’s disability payments weren’t high enough for her to afford market-rate housing in Los Angeles. She had no option but to move out of state.

A key barrier to making permanent supportive housing safe for women with histories of MST has been the federal Fair Housing Act, which generally prohibits segregating housing by gender. But a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit known as S.T. v. New Directions Inc., in which Legal Aid at Work Senior Staff Attorney Elizabeth Kristen and I were involved as attorneys, provides an important clarification.

This case involved another woman in Los Angeles who was disabled by MST-related post-traumatic stress disorder. She claimed she was sexually harassed and assaulted at New Directions, veteran-only permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles, where she and five other women were among 128 residents. They were literally surrounded by men.

Homeless woman on skid row in 2010.
Homeless woman on skid row in 2010. Photo credit: Gilbert Mercier (cropped).

New Directions argued that the Fair Housing Act prohibited it from providing separate housing for women. But the court disagreed, finding that gender-specific safety accommodations may be lawful in the context of veteran-only housing, which is characterized by an overwhelmingly male population and by women with MST-related mental health disabilities that could be exacerbated by the presence of men. Here, the court found, gender-specific safety accommodations could be justified for health and safety reasons or as a reasonable accommodation to ensure that women with MST-related conditions have equal access to such facilities.

Let’s honor veterans this Memorial Day by providing them with permanent housing that is safe, affordable, and tailored for their needs.

Cacilia Kim is a special counsel with Legal Aid at Work and holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

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