Homeless female veterans: Out of sight, out of mind

Department of Veterans Affairs service centers are concentrated in urban areas and do not align with largest populations of veterans, according to research conducted by Penn State graduate student Elizabeth Elsea. Credit: Elizabeth ElseaAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Female veterans are the fastest growing demographic among the homeless population in the United States and face a double hurdle of distance and invisibility in getting the health services they need from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to research conducted by Penn State graduate student and U.S. Air Force veteran Elizabeth Elsea.

Elsea conducted a geospatial analysis of veterans for final project for her master of professional studies in homeland security (geospatial intelligence option). Her analysis showed that VA services, originally established in locations meant to support a nation of young men drafted to fight two world wars, are no longer optimally situated to serve a shifting veteran population and female veterans specifically.

“By the end of this decade, there will be an estimated 2.5 million female veterans,” Elsea said. “Most people don’t realize that women have been serving in the country’s military since before we called ourselves the United States of America, but we only become part of regular armed forces through the Women's Armed Service Integration Act of 1948.”

Elsea used data from the VA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Commerce to conduct a geospatial analysis of concentrations of homeless veterans and locations of veterans’ services offices.

“I was very surprised by my findings,” Elsea said. “Living in Hawaii, I am acutely aware of the homelessness crisis occurring here and throughout the rest of the U.S., but I was surprised that the percentages of female homeless veterans are so far out of proportion to the rest of the general population.”

Previous research has shown flaws in the way that homeless people are counted, and that homeless female veterans are especially likely to be undercounted. The VA has found that females veterans are at high-risk for homelessness, especially if they are in poverty. These veterans are more than twice as likely to be homeless as other women and more than three times as likely if they are at risk or in poverty, according to the VA. Elsea’s analysis showed that female homeless veterans are concentrated in the South and southeastern states, but that VA centers tend to be located in large urban areas and the Northeast.

“I think it was due to WWI and WWII veterans being drafted and those veterans being a reflection of the U.S. population at the time,” she said. “Today's all-volunteer force are from geographically different areas and choose to reside in geographically different areas after they finish their service.”

“As a veteran from the era when the force was largely all males, I found Elizabeth Elsea’s research thought-provoking and pioneering,” said Todd Bacastow, teaching professor in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. “Her work seems to show that veteran services located for WWII-, Korean War- and Vietnam-era veterans probably are not sited to serve the newer demographic of women veterans. It’s a topic of significant geographic research that should be pursued.”

A side by side comparison of female and male veteran populations reveals that both groups of veterans reside in the greatest number in California, Texas and Florida, however they differ in concentrations. Female veterans have the highest concentration in Texas; male veterans, in California.

“From the information I been able to gather, I think the VA needs to move more services to the South and southeastern United States,” Elsea said. “Female veterans appear to have the largest concentrations of homeless in those states. VA reports indicate that 87 percent of female veterans do not use VA services.”

Elsea said she hopes her results will provide information for state and federal veteran’s assistance agencies to allocate resources more appropriately to address the issue of female veteran homelessness.

“The primary intent of my analysis is to inform decision-makers at local, state and federal levels, and community leaders, as well as the general public, in order to specifically address the growing number of female homeless veterans," said Elsea.

The online Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security – Geospatial Intelligence option is offered through Penn State World Campus in partnership with the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Department of Geography and John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.

Last Updated September 03, 2020