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Homeless Female Veterans Face Challenges In San Diego

— Amber Ramirez doesn’t like to think of herself as a veteran.

Ramirez was a private in the Army when she was raped by her physical therapist, a major, at Fort Sam Houston five years ago. She said when her superiors were alerted to the assault, her sergeant brought in criminal investigators.

Ramirez was interrogated; the major was not.

“They started accusing me of, oh, well, sometimes people — women — make things up because they want to go home.”

Ramirez lives in San Diego and she is homeless. As a female veteran, she is a member of the fastest growing homeless population, according to a recent report by the Department of Housing and Urban Planning.

Woman in the military

Above: Woman in the military

Aired 4/3/13 on KPBS News.

Homeless female veterans are a growing population in San Diego, one of the largest military cities in the country.

After her assault, Ramirez went AWOL and lived in motels neighboring the base in Texas because she didn’t want to fight the investigation and didn’t think she would get any help from the military after the assault.

“I just felt attacked by them, unsupported, because nobody likes it when you go up against their superiors, so I left.”

That was in 2008. Five years later, at age 32, Ramirez, a San Diego native, is now staying at the St. Vincent de Paul Village in downtown San Diego after spending the last five years on couches, parks and the street.

Maria Mustacchio is the house manager at AMIKAS, a transitional home for female veterans in San Diego. She said the homeless situation for women leaving the military will only get worse.

“With downsizing, the sequestration and San Diego being such a huge military base, we are going to see a rise in homelessness because [women] are not going to be adjusted. They are not going to be able to find jobs, which in our economy, is already hard enough as it is.”

AMIKAS was set up in 2009 for those reasons, Mustacchio added, as a place for female veterans to “get stabilized and catch their breath.”

Ramirez still has not been able to find a single job since leaving the military despite trying for everything from Jack-in-the-Box to various online employment services.

“I haven’t had much work experience. That also affected it. I was going to get that in the military. I was going to be a nurse.”

She said her military background also works against her.

A month after going AWOL, Ramirez turned herself in to the military police. She was asked to sign away her Veterans Affairs benefits and given an “Other than Honorable” discharge. She didn’t ask any questions. And she was never deployed.

“They all ask about military history and I have to be honest and answer 'yes.' But to have an ‘Other than Honorable’ discharge doesn’t look great.”

Yolanda Sidoti oversees homeless programs at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in La Jolla. She said they are not seeing an increase in homelessness in returning female veterans in San Diego. She added that it is difficult to separate the issues between men and women that lead to homelessness.

The Medical Center focuses on “their economic needs, their family support needs, their educational needs … all of the things that will help resume a regular lifestyle as quickly as possible,” she explained.

Ramirez, though, said that the rape led to depression, and later, homelessness.

“It was very difficult for me, I was very depressed after that. I really wanted to be in the Army and I was like, 'now what do I do? Now what?'”

One in eight female veterans surveyed at the VA Medical Center in 2011 said they suffered military sexual trauma, according to the Women Veterans program manager.

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