Retired Lt. Col. Hope Jackson expected to be helping homeless female veterans in El Paso get back on their feet by now. But her efforts to open a shelter hit a snag when fundraising fell short, and she lost out on a contract with the local veterans administration.
That Jackson didn’t get the nod wasn’t as much of a surprise to her as who did: a privately run company on the city’s outskirts located next to a halfway house. She sees the decision as a sign that, despite the growing number of female veterans in Texas, their unique needs are not being met when they face challenges transitioning to civilian life.
In October 2011, Jackson paid $70,000 for a house near El Paso's Fort Bliss on the city’s northeast side with plans to turn it into a shelter for women veterans. She hoped to have the eight-bed facility, called the HOPE Institute, finished by December 2014. Her plan calls for programs including classes on topics ranging from basic hygiene to finances and credit repair, homeownership and career searching. The first 16 weeks would be free, Jackson said. After that, tenants will need to have a job and help with rent.
But funds and volunteers fell short. Jackson applied for a contract with the El Paso Veteran's Administration that would have helped her finish the facility, she said. She passed the VA’s inspection and the City of El Paso signed off on the project.
Ultimately, however, Jackson says she was told she didn’t have enough experience to run a shelter, though she believes the decision had more to do with her plan to do more than just provide residents a temporary roof.
“'We don’t need all that other stuff [you’re] trying to do, we just need to house these people,'” Jackson said she was told.
The contract was instead awarded April 1 to Avalon Correctional Services, a private company that operates its shelter next to a halfway house whose residents include convicted sex offenders.
The $137,000 contract is for one year with an option to renew for three more, said Robert Miller, a VA contracting officer.
Officials with Avalon directed all questions about their program to the VA. Miller said in an email that veterans staying at the shelter must seek treatment for alcohol or drug problems. He said any additional questions about services the facility offers should be directed to the El Paso VA, which didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
For less money, Jackson says, she hoped to offer a wider range of help to a group that desperately needs it. “In the past three or four months, I have had to redirect five people who have called me about a place to live. Texas has 170,000 [female veterans] and when you’re looking at about five percent homeless, you do the numbers,” she said.
Jackson said she would need about $70,000 per year to operate her facility, although that would cover only minimal staff that wouldn’t be offered benefits.
The number of female homeless veterans isn't climbing, some observers say, and the situation for all homeless veterans has improved in the border city.
Camille Castillo, a projects coordinator for the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless, said the number of veterans on the streets has dipped to about 10 from last year’s 54. The city was awarded a $3 million grant to keep help keep veterans off the streets as part of the federal government’s Support Services for Veterans Families program.
Jackson said part of the problem is how the term “homeless veteran” is defined. To her, a woman bunking with a friend or relative qualifies.
“If I am sleeping on your couch I have shelter until you tell me I have to leave,” she said. “So that’s what I am here to address, the need is only going to increase.”
Castillo said the coalition doesn’t estimate “couch surfers” in its count and doesn’t have a way of gauging those numbers.
“Our numbers would probably quadruple,” she said. “You have a lot of that [in El Paso].”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that as of January 2014, there were 49,933 homeless veterans in the country, a 33 percent dip from 2010. About 8 percent of the homeless were female.
But females are also more prone to undiagnosed mental health issues. According to a 2010 report by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a woman who experienced Military Sexual Trauma is also nine times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. And though they make up about 15 percent of the military population, they account for 95 percent of the sex crimes reported.
“You see the train wreck getting ready to happen [in El Paso],” Jackson said.
When asked about the contract the local VA recently awarded, Castillo said she agreed the location wasn’t ideal and the unit lacked experience dealing with female veterans. But she said that was not the coalition’s decision to make.
Jackson remains optimistic that she’ll open her shelter sooner rather than later. She spends most of her time at the house doing what she can by herself, trusting that her faith in God will continue to guide her.
“There will come a day when this house will open,” she said. “A staffed home, lights, food, people who care about you beats living under a bridge or sleeping on someone else’s couch or in your car.”