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Gender, Violence Against Women, Poverty, Family
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North America
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Homelessness, Military, Veterans
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Women veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the US and have been failed by an impotent Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Mary F. Calvert

2014 — professional winner

Paulina joined the US Air Force because she loved her country and soon held a coveted top-secret position in flight management. Just a few years later she left the military and before long, found herself jobless and living in her car.

Women veterans are the fasted growing segment of the homeless population in the United States and are four times more likely to become homeless than civilian women.

Although the Pentagon recently paved the way for women to serve in combat positions, the US Military has a long way to go. Women are under-represented in the upper ranks and many who signed up for a military career are getting out due to dashed hopes of career advancement and high levels of harassment and sexual assault. Women who courageously served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan have arrived home with healthcare issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, to scattered families, jobs that no longer exist, an impotent Department of Veteran’s Affairs and to a nation who favors their male counterparts.

The challenges for women veterans are unique and difficult to address, especially when programs for vets seldom meet the needs of mothers and many homeless women vets happen to be single parents. 

Women have to leave their children in the care of family members or friends when they deploy and many face custody battles when the stress of deployment tears their families apart. Many of these women escaped a difficult situation by joining the military and when they get out find them unable to cope with the stresses of unemployment and a weak economy. In addition, a good deal of homeless shelters cannot accommodate children and those that can often won’t allow a male child over the age of 12. 

In 2009, President Obama and then VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, announced the goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and just two weeks ago, during an event for the Homeless Veterans Initiative in the East Room at the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “Even one homeless veteran is a shame,” The fact that we have 58,000 is a moral outrage. We should all do more about it.” 

I am committed to using photography to affect meaningful social change and I am known for producing work on gender based, human rights issues. A photographer friend of mine recently critiqued my website and told me I ought to remove some of the depressing content. That people do not want to see stories about rape, obstetric fistula, and polio epidemics. I agree. Most people do not want to see such things, but they need to see them. In the old media world, these stories from Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are usually allocated 15 inches on page A-16 or shoehorned into 30-second slots midway through news broadcasts, if they are reported at all.

The new media world is already a buffet piled high with eye-candy that offers little food for thought or sustenance for the soul. As journalists, we must dedicate ourselves to keeping a place for the disadvantaged at the new media table. I believe that using visual media to document what ails our world is more important now than ever before.


The largest concentration of homeless veterans in America is in Los Angeles, California. My project, “Missing in Action: Homeless Women Veterans” would focus on this region, the painfully slow response by the beleaguered US Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the organizations attempting to help these women. Naomi House, run by the Salvation Army, not only provides emergency housing to homeless women veterans but also counseling, legal help and job training. 

My job is to put a human face on this neglected crisis and make you care. I will accomplish by making compelling photographs of these women and letting them tell their own stories in their own voices. The mind cannot fathom the horror of a humanitarian crisis in 30 seconds. Only when one bears witness to a scene frozen in a photograph or hears the cries of a traumatized woman or child, can they begin to internalize such injustice and suffering; only when people internalize such suffering are they moved to act. 

I endeavor to secure The Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative Grant because I share its core belief that journalists have a duty to shine a light into the deepest recesses of the human experience and provide a mirror for society to examine itself. 

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Alishaa Dell, (cq) 25, spent five years in the US Navy. “I am worth so much fucking more than what I got paid to do in the military. I got tired of getting sand kicked in my eyes for doing what I was supposed to do.” She is still not ready to discuss her Military Sexual Trauma, (MST). “I’m treating all the problems that come with MST without talking about the MST. I’m treating the symptoms and repercussions,” she added.

Homeless, she lives off a $600 disability check from the VA and has been couch surfing with friends until she wears out her welcome. Now she lives with a boyfriend she wants to break up with but says she has nowhere else to go and is seeking housing and medical help from the VA. “They make you jump through hoops to make sure you’re serious about getting help. Mainly because services are free and they don’t want to spend resources on someone who isn’t serious or lying. There are some people who still struggle with their own mental health issues who don’t have the capacity to jump through those hoops to get the help they need.” Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Homeless veteran Darlene Matthews has been living in her car for over two years while she waits for a housing voucher from the VA. She joined the US Army in 1976 and was sent to Fort McLellan, Alabama. "I was going to join this all women's army and there would be no sexual problems but I joined and there were sexual problems." She was beyond horrified when she discovered that it wasn't a safe place and instead full of "illegal punishments and all this sexual stuff. The whole atmosphere was abusive."

Her life spiraled down after she got out of the military and found herself very depressed. She joined the military to escape a chaotic abusive home life and was forced back into it when she was discharged.  She has been fighting with the VA for benefits including housing vouchers but has been living in her car in the parking lot of a mortuary next to a graveyard. "It's like being in a fun house and every door gets slammed in your face every time you try to leave. I feel like giving up sometimes, and nobody would care." Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Debra Filter joined the US Army in 1978 and went through boot camp at Fort Ord, Georgia. In those days, the women trained just like the men did. Her drill sergeants were Viet Nam vets and "wanted to make sure all the recruits felt a piece of Viet Nam. A lot of it was a "Full Metal Jacket" experience," she says. Debra and several other women recruits were raped at the party they were forced to attend upon graduation. "We didn't realize it was for women and that a great many of us were going to be raped."

"I wanted to make the military my career. Rape stopped my career, stopped any dreams I ever had." Her PTSD festered and Debra eventually left the military with an honorable discharge. Though educated with a Masters Degree, she has been homeless for 10 years and has battled the VA for benefits for 30 years. She left Las Vegas when the VA pulled her benefits. Debra thinks it was in retaliation for her homeless activism. She says the teardrop tattoo under her eye is a symbol of how the VA tried to kill her. She has been in and out of shelters in LA and now has a housing voucher for a studio apartment in Korea-town in Los Angeles, CA. Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
When Karen Scott joined the US Army in 1985, she was a lithe, slender and attractive young woman who attended and finished flight school and had a bright future in telecommunications and arial observation. Instead, she became a target for sexual assault and over the next seven years was raped several times and endured a steady campaign of innuendoes, threats, harassment and sexual badgering. At her duty station in Korea she tried to get help and was told by her commander "I advise you to shut up, this will end your career and you will get hurt again."

In Egypt she was grabbed and dragged into a tent on the way to the chow hall. "I couldn't fight him off. I wasn't right after that. I was pretty much screwed after that, she said. Soon after that, she was exposed to chemical weapons, became ill but soon went back to work. Later on she developed Graves Disease, a malfunction in the body's disease fighting immune system. Things got better for Karen and she was stationed in Georgia flying second seat in a Mohawk. She enjoyed attending and graduating from flight school and started feeling better about the military. Then she started getting sick again and everything went downhill from there.

She went to talk to her company commander about her orders and he locked her up for eight weeks. She was told by the psychiatrist that she was a "stupid, messed up troublemaker and we're getting rid of you." Eventually, her Graves Disease diagnosis ignored, she was given a personality disorder discharge. "They distorted my career and health with irreversible conditions" said Karen. She found herself homeless after her military service and has sought help through the VA for medical, mental health services and shelter that she could afford. She says the VA causes homelessness by putting veterans in unsafe conditions. Karen lived in her near a quarry for a while but now lives in Section 8 housing, always frightened that the VA could pull her housing voucher. Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
US Army veteran Wilma M. Herndon, watches TV in her room at the Mary Walker House for homeless women veterans in Coatesville, PA. She was married to another soldier who beat and sexually assaulted her. Wilma confided in her 1st Sergeant who did nothing to stop her abuser so she turned to drugs and drinking to feel better. Thus beginning her downward spiral to homelessness. Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Melissa A. Ramon spent nine years in the US Air Force where she endured military sexual trauma at the hands of her training instructor and fellow airmen. "You see stripes and think it's power and authority. I went along with it because it was my career if I'd have stopped. I had the rules and he didn't. Whatever way he looked at it, it was his word against mine,” she said. Melissa suffers from Military Sexual Trauma and PTSD and has been homeless off and on since her discharge.

She has sought help from the VA and several Veteran NGO’s. “They keep denying us, denying the claims and make us jump through hoops and even lose our paperwork. It’s like they are trying to kill us with what they put us through, “she said. Women's shelters will not admit a young man over the age of twelve, so she and her 13-year-old son Sam, bounce from one drug-ridden motel to another outside Los Angeles in Pomona, Ca. Melissa and her son move into a motel she calls "The Jungle." Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Melissa A. Ramon spent nine years in the US Air Force where she endured military sexual trauma at the hands of her training instructor and fellow airmen. "You see stripes and think it's power and authority. I went along with it because it was my career if I'd have stopped. I had the rules and he didn't. Whatever way he looked at it, it was his word against mine,” she said. Melissa suffers from Military Sexual Trauma and PTSD and has been homeless off and on since her discharge.

She has sought help from the VA and several Veteran NGO’s. “They keep denying us, denying the claims and make us jump through hoops and even lose our paperwork. It’s like they are trying to kill us with what they put us through,“ she said. Women's shelters will not admit a young man over the age of twelve, so she and her 13-year-old son Sam, bounce from one drug-ridden motel to another outside Los Angeles in Pomona, Ca. Melissa and her son move into a motel she calls "The Jungle." Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Melissa A. Ramon spent nine years in the US Air Force where she endured military sexual trauma at the hands of her training instructor and fellow airmen. "You see stripes and think it's power and authority. I went along with it because it was my career if I'd have stopped. I had the rules and he didn't. Whatever way he looked at it, it was his word against mine,” she said. Melissa suffers from Military Sexual Trauma and PTSD and has been homeless off and on since her discharge.
 
She has sought help from the VA and several Veteran NGO’s. “They keep denying us, denying the claims and make us jump through hoops and even lose our paperwork. It’s like they are trying to kill us with what they put us through,“ she said. Women's shelters will not admit a young man over the age of twelve, so she and her 13-year-old son Sam, bounce from one drug-ridden motel to another outside Los Angeles in Pomona, Ca. Melissa and her son move into a motel she calls "The Jungle." Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
Sandra Sherman, 51, left, had only been in the US Army for a few weeks when she was drugged and raped at a party that she attended with her female buddies from basic training.  She never reported the assault to her command. “It was well known if you reported rape you would be killed or chaptered out with a less than honorable discharge. To this day if I have a male supervisor, I am apprehensive, nervous and afraid, “ she says. 

After that, a fellow soldier raped her at her next duty station in Ft. Meade, MD. “These were supposed to be men who were my brothers. It is a silent stigma that if you go into the military and you’re female, that you expect to be raped. You’re just expected to go on and do your job,” she added. After seven years she got out of the Army. “I didn’t realize how traumatized I was until it affected me on a daily basis and I would hallucinate. I was emotionally numb, no treatment for years and couldn’t work. I couldn’t ignore my feelings anymore.” 

Her downward spiral continued into homelessness. Sandra was referred to Naomi House when she called the Los Angeles VA crisis line. Naomi House in located in Los Angeles and is a transitional housing for homeless women veteran's sponsored by the Salvation Army with help from the VA. She and other veterans salute the color guard at the Goodwill Industries Los Angeles stand-down, an event for local homeless veterans that gives them access to medical and housing services and a chance to replenish. Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation
When Paula Anderson told her US Army commander that she had been drugged and raped by a fellow soldier, she was shipped off to Korea. Her US Army career lasted six years but her military sexual trauma has followed her for 20 years. After spending 17 months in jail, she has been homeless since February 2015. “In the little bit of time I’ve been homeless it takes the good out of me. I don’t care how I look. I think I look ugly. Pretty soon you use drugs to comfort yourself. That’s part of being homeless.”

She says she has made bad choices but started to develop when she watched Oprah. “When you are older you wonder how did I get here? And then you start putting the puzzle together.” Paula came to the San Diego Veteran’s Village Stand Down to meet friends and seek services. At night, she sleeps in her car in a church parking lot. “The military taught us how to survive on the streets. They taught us to camp and survive the elements,” she added. With plastic trash bags to keep her and her belongings dry, she leaves the San Diego stand down in the pouring rain. Mary F. Calvert/Alexia Foundation