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On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we visit a shelter that remembers forgotten veterans

U.S. Army

The D-Day invasion during World War Two took place eighty years today. We remember those who fought and died during observances like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. But, there are some former members of the military who feel they’re forgotten. Despite outreach by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more and more women veterans are experiencing homelessness. The VA says female vets with no place to live increased twenty four percent from 2020 to 2023.

Cori Yonge

“I’ve had several salads out of here so I don’t mind doing the watering,” said Valdostah Rhamone. She retired from the military years ago, but the vigorous 76- year -old still wears her dog tags, even while doing chores at the Faith House in Pensacola, Florida. It’s a transitional home for single, women veterans experiencing homelessness. Rhamone says her dog tags help tell her story.

“Whether I'm on the bus or at church or wherever people want to know a little bit about you know, what happened and did you serve,” she said.

Rhamone served during the Vietnam War and beyond with the Women’s Army Corp. She says when she left the military she moved around a lot. Rhamone’s story is complicated. A few months ago, she had a health scare and then someone stole her car. Her small military pension and social security weren’t enough to cover her bills. After a brief stays at the Salvation Army and a hotel, a VA counselor connected Rhamone with Faith House. She’s staying for free while she looks for affordable housing.

“I would like to be able to move forward maybe within the next 90 days,” she said.

The VA houses close to forty thousand veterans each year. It uses programs like voucher assistance, supportive services for Veteran Families, and short-term transitional housing. Despite these programs, the VA is seeing an alarming national trend. There’s an increase in the number of women veterans experiencing homelessness.

Cori Yonge

“Housing is expensive and that is one of our significant barriers is just the increase in the market,” said Katherine Walker. She manages the VA’s homeless programs on the Gulf Coast. She says the VA tries to find everyone a home. But some programs like vouchers have income thresholds that vary widely by region and others may not always be a good fit.

“It’s just depending on maybe mental health maybe experiences in a shelter situation where a veteran does not want to go back to those types of situations,” she said.

For single women veterans, that’s where Faith House often comes in. It’s part of the non-profit Honor HER Foundation. The letters H, E, and R standing for Honor, Empower and Rebuild our sisters in arms. On a Wednesday in May, Barbara Francis, a veteran herself and president of the Foundation gives a tour of Faith House to the Bombing Bettys. They’re a local chapter of the Women Marines Association who support other service members.

Cori Yonge

Housing is only part of the package. An all-volunteer staff connects women with VA benefits, mental health counseling, and job opportunities. A VA health clinic is less than three miles away. But Francis says convincing women Veterans they’re entitled to benefits is sometimes the hardest job.

“They'll think I didn't serve in war time. I didn't go, you know, serve in the Gulf War. I just sat in the office, but you served. You served a purpose, you served your country,” Francis insists.

With an average age of 58, residents of Faith House tend to be a little older than most women veterans experiencing homelessness. Ann Elizabeth Montgomery with the University of Alabama at Birmingham studies the issue. She says the roots of homelessness – at any age - include military sexual trauma, intimate partner violence, mental health concerns, poverty and more.

"Homelessness is about a million different variables. Right? It's a lot what happens across your life course, it's the town where you live. It's the resources that are available. It's your ability to access those resources,” Montgomery said.

And women veterans experiencing homelessness come from all walks of life says Barbara Francis.

USAF

“We have one that's an officer in the military right upstairs right now life happens," she said.

Women can stay at Faith House up to a year. The Honor HER Foundation relies solely on donations. One of its biggest funders is a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in neighboring Alabama. Just in time for the summer heat, they recently donated money to install new air conditioning. The group’s Carol Salsamendi says it’s important to care for female soldiers.

“We just are not conditioned to think that women are a vital part of our veterans.”

“These already look wet,” said Valdosta Rhamone, whom we met watering the garden at the start of this story says at Faith House she feels recognized.

“There are people here that respect me. Um you know in my situation,” she stated.

The Honor HER Foundation believes that respect goes a long way toward empowering women veterans who are rebuilding their lives.

APR Graduate student intern Cori Yonge returns to journalism after spending time in the corporate world. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies from The University of Alabama and is ecstatic to be back working with public radio. Cori has an interest in health, environment, and science reporting and is the winner of both an Associated Press award and Sigma Delta Chi award for healthcare related stories. The mother of two daughters, Cori spent twelve years as a Girl Scout leader. Though her daughters are grown, she still enjoys camping with friends and family – especially if that time allows her to do some gourmet outdoor cooking. Cori and her husband Lynn live in Fairhope.
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