Project Journey helping homeless female veterans cope

Program provides transitional housing and mentoring for women after military service


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Dawnisha Brown joined the Army in 2000, partly to prove to her father and her uncles, veterans themselves, that she could do it, and partly because she believed it was a path to a better life for her children.

For more than a decade, she served, including two tours of duty in Iraq as a human resources specialist, where she said her camp came under frequent attack.

But in February 2011, after she was discharged and returned to her native Clairton, Ms. Brown floundered.

She arrived home without a job or a place of her own to live. She needed legal help to regain custody of her children, who were living with her ex-husband during her deployments, and help with anxiety and depression.

The transition from military to civilian life was more difficult than she expected, said Ms. Brown, who is now 36.

"It was a very big shock, because in the military, you are used to discipline, you are used to structure and you are used to the routine. And when you first come home, there is pretty much none of that," she said. "Going from the military lifestyle to the civilian lifestyle, it's a big wake-up call."

Most veterans transition well. But there are many, such as Ms. Brown, for whom the return to civilian life has included a struggle with homelessness.

Recently, the Veterans Leadership Program expanded its services for homeless female veterans and their families, with the aim of helping more of what staff at the South Side nonprofit and the Pittsburgh's Veterans Affairs office say is an increasing number of female veterans seeking help with housing.

Dubbed Project Journey, the new program is funded by a $165,000 grant from the United Way of Allegheny County's United for Women initiative, and it has helped about 10 women since August, said Michele Margittai, the Veterans Leadership Program's director of development and community relations.

"It's about walking with the woman veteran and helping her with whatever challenges she's going through, and then she moves on," Ms. Margittai said. "Because we know our veterans are strong and resilient and courageous, and they are just at the point in their lives where they need help."

Ms. Brown has moved far beyond where she was in mid-2011, though she remains in weekly contact with the Veterans Leadership Program. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she was living with relatives in a crowded house in Clairton. At the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Oakland, where she went for treatment of anxiety and depression, they referred her to the South Side nonprofit.

Right away, the program helped her find a place to live and assisted her with the rent. They also have provided mentoring, and resume-building help. Now, Ms. Brown works full time as a custodian and is taking classes online to become a social worker. Her 18-year-old daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter live with her, while her four other children continue to live with their father, with Ms. Brown having them at her house on the weekends.

The numbers grow

Her story, or a version of it, has become a familiar one to Ms. Margittai.

Veteran homelessness, in general, has been declining since 2009, and the federal government has stated its goal to eliminate it by 2015. More than 92 percent of the nation's 62,619 homeless veterans counted in January 2012 were male. But as more women join the military and then become veterans, their numbers needing help will grow, Ms. Margittai said.

One week in January, four female-led families arrived at her offices seeking shelter, which can be a difficult prospect for families, especially when they are teenage boys who may not be permitted in a women's or family shelter. Then in March, Ms. Margittai attended a women veterans conference in Harrisburg, where she listened to discussion about the difficulties for female veterans, many of whom face the additional challenge of having experienced military sexual assault.

Project Journey was born when Ms. Margittai decided, after those experiences and meeting women such as Ms. Brown: "OK, we're doing something bigger." Last month, the Veterans Leadership Program held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in East Liberty for a three-bedroom house that will be available as temporary housing for female veterans. Additional temporary housing will be available in Swissvale, Millvale and the South Side.

Tales of similar pasts

On a recent morning, two female veterans who were among the first to be part of Project Journey traveled to one of the South Side houses newly designated for female veterans to talk to a reporter about their experiences.

Sharia White, 56, of Braddock, and Lorraine Alston, 48, of East Liberty, had never met before the interviews. But their stories were similar, in that both served in the Army in the 1980s and their homelessness was predicated by domestic problems.

Ms. White, who grew up in Virginia, spent two years in college, then served for three years in Colorado and Germany, doing supply work. She married while she was in the military, then was discharged in 1983. Returning to Virginia, she worked as a warehouse logistics clerk. In 2010, divorced, she moved to Maryland with her daughter, now 16, and her son, now 14. But, she said, there were domestic violence issues with the man she was living with at the time, and it became a situation she had to leave.

On the advice of a friend, she came to Pittsburgh, but the person she and her children were staying with couldn't support her indefinitely, and with her savings running low, she worried about where her family could live. "It was at the point then, that I didn't know what to do," she said.

Ms. Alston, too, served for three years during the 1980s. Her road to homelessness began in the summer of 2012. The mother of a now-13-year-old son, that summer she was divorced, then forced to leave her East End apartment due to a change in the management of the building. Over the next year, she lived at times with her mother, in a hotel, and in a Salvation Army shelter, among other places.

She finally arrived at the Veterans Leadership Program in August, an option she thought not available to her, she said, because she did not consider herself a veteran.

"I thought all these programs had to do with a veteran that saw war. That come home with missing limbs," she said.

That sentiment is a reason often cited by veterans, said Ms. Margittai, adding that many are not comfortable asking for help, or receiving it.

But both women were helped by Project Journey, provided with transitional housing and mentoring.

Now, Ms. White and Ms. Alston are living on their own, though both receive rent assistance from the VA's Supportive Services for Veteran Families.

Ms. White has a job as a warehouse clerk in Verona, and Ms. Alston, who recently moved into her apartment, will begin looking for one soon, with the help of Project Journey. The two women, though they came separately, departed from the South Side together after their interviews, talking like old friends, with Ms. White offering Ms. Alston a ride.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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