PHOENIX — After serving in the U.S. Air Force for seven years, Bonnie Diaz waited tables and operated a forklift to make ends meet before she ended up homeless.
“Coming out of the military is like coming out of prison and being released into the world,” Diaz, 46, said. “The world has moved on and it’s no longer a recognizable environment.”
After moving to Phoenix to find work in 2011, Diaz said she found herself in and out of shelters and temporary housing until March, when she came MANA House. That was when the Madison Street Veterans Association opened a women-only branch of the transitional housing facility, whose name stands for Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force.
Laura DiTroia, program coordinator at Lodestar Day Resource Center, said the new women’s section at MANA House fills a need in the community.
“We noticed that homeless women veterans don’t really have a lot of support,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of shelter or traditional housing programs available that are just for women veterans.”
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, the number of homeless female veterans nationally has more than doubled from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,328 in 2010.
Brad Bridwell, director of community development for Cloudbreak Communities, a special-needs housing developer for homeless veterans, said he expects this number to increase with more women coming back from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Even though the vast majority of homeless veterans are single male individuals, it’s alarming when you have a subpopulation double,” he said. “Women are taking on more positions within the military, with some experiencing things like post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or substance abuse that might put them at a greater risk to becoming homeless.”
Diaz said she never took to the streets, opting to stay with friends before turning to shelters and transitional housing.
“I haven’t had to sleep on the streets with a buggy with all my stuff in a shopping cart like you see all the time,” she said. “I think those are mostly people who just give up.”
Joan Sisco, president of Veterans First Ltd., said this is common among homeless female veterans.
“Women are very difficult to find,” Sisco said. “A lot of women go from couch to couch or friend to friend before they become homeless on the street.”
Melissa Meierdierks, coordinator for the Community Resource and Referral Center, said women tend to not identify as veterans.
“Women often think that if they didn’t serve in combat that they shouldn’t be considered a veteran,” she said. “Instead of asking, ‘Are you a veteran?’ we always make sure to pose the question, ‘Have you ever served in the military?'”
Located near downtown Phoenix, the 16-bed setup at MANA House mimics military-style barracks, and every staff member has a military background.
“Veterans understand veterans,” DiTroia said. “We speak veteran, so we understand some of the struggles that they went through while serving and help them get connected to services.”
When a woman comes to MANA House, she meets weekly with an adviser, like DiTroia, to devise an action plan that connects her with services and maps out education or career goals.
With a background in accounting, Diaz said she found that her professional skills were outdated when she applied for civilian jobs.
Marcy Karin, an associate clinical professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law who has written about issues veterans face, said job loss is a major risk factor that primes all veterans for homelessness.
“Experiencing homelessness is very much tied to whether you have economic security,” she said. “I would say that the No. 1 thing employers can do is communicate especially with their employees who are veterans about what their needs are.”
Sisco, who also runs Mary Ellen’s Place, an affordable housing center for female veterans, said veterans coming out from service need a break before going into the job market.
“I think there’s a decompression time that needs to happen when our servicemen and women return,” she said. “For the homeless, they need to get that pride and self confidence back along with help to make sure they are mentally and physically OK first … then they can work on getting a job.”
Since moving into MANA House, Diaz has been going to school to be certified as a Microsoft Office Professional and plans to enroll at Rio Salado College to earn an associate’s degree in accounting. She said her goal is to have a full-time job in six months so she can move out of MANA House and support herself.
“When I’m down, I’ll cry for a while and then I just get right back up and keep filing on because my spirit’s strong,” she said. “This is not an endpoint, this is a stepping stone to establish my life again.”