Female veterans in New York state without a permanent place to live have strikingly few options — and with the COVID-19 pandemic stretching on, they face more challenges than ever.
The Veterans and Community Housing Coalition – or VCHC - runs The Guardian House in Ballston Spa. It’s a halfway house of sorts for female veterans who face homelessness and, often, are coping with addiction and past trauma. It is the only house of its kind in the state, and one of just seven in the country funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cheryl Hage-Perez, Executive Director of VCHC, says it’s fundamental to create an all-female safe space for the veterans.
“Since the house opened we’ve served maybe 70 women,” Hage-Perez said. “80% of them have been victims of military sexual trauma and are dealing with addiction, are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders – which often leads – which always leads – to a homeless situation.”
Hage-Perez says the first step in healing is always stable housing – because if you don’t know if you’ll have a safe place to sleep that night, it’s hard to focus on anything else. So they set up housing first, then address other needs.
“Mental health counseling, addiction counseling, rehab, detox, physical illness,” Hage-Perez said.
Hage-Perez says most of the female veterans at The Guardian House stay for about two years, or until they are ready to live on their own, like Janet Harrington. Harrington is an active duty Air Force veteran who went through the program and now lives on her own. She says The Guardian House helped her to overcome her sexual trauma.
“While in the military – I went in thinking they were going to show me responsibility, accountability and all that,” Harrington said. “But when I – when I reported that I got raped they started putting me on a guilt trip. ‘What about them? Their families. What about the men. The man’s career. Your career.’ So they basically side-lined me into staying shut.”
Harrington says she suppressed it for as long as she could.
“When I came out I didn’t know how to deal with the trauma. And the rapes. And the stress that I was under,” Harrington said. “Because they kept sending me to Saudi Arabia. Then I picked up drugs and alcohol.”
Harrington has been sober for almost five years now. She credits that to The Guardian House – which gave her rules and a routine.
“No drinking, no drugs allowed at all,” Harrington said. “There’s a schedule. Like, a time you have to be home. I mean nobody should be out in the street at 11 o’clock at night anyway. If you can afford to go to a bar you don’t need to be here.”
Hage-Perez says The Guardian House is partially funded by the VA, partially by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and partially by other state agencies. The rest comes from donations and fundraising, like the annual Veterans Ball, which Hage-Perez says usually has over 400 guests and donors, but is off this year due to COVID-19.
So, they’re getting creative. On Veterans Day in November, the Veterans and Community Housing Coalition is holding a live feed from Caffè Lena as a fundraiser.
“We plan to have video clips of some of the veterans that we’ve served and where they were, how they got there and where they are now,” Hage-Perez said.
Hage-Perez says they will honor veterans from the community, World War II vets, and a fallen hero.
In the meantime, Harrington has some advice for any female veterans who are in danger of becoming homeless, or struggling with addiction or past trauma, but are nervous about contacting The Guardian House.
“Run there,” Harrington said. “Give yourself time to heal like I did. And now today I can actually enjoy life.”
If you know a veteran in need: VCHC Guardian House.