Rochelle Lopez lived in her car in the Milwaukee area for six months after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. Her story is not unique. Female veterans are now the fastest-growing segment of America’s homeless population.
On any given night in the United States, nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless. That's according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. A 2014 study from Disabled American Veterans found that eight percent of those homeless veterans are women.
Lopez's story starts like many veterans'. She is the daughter of a soldier, she’s the granddaughter of a soldier, she's even the great-granddaughter of a soldier. All she ever wanted to be was a soldier, and she became one.
Lopez served two tours in Iraq, working alongside mostly men. She saw combat during her second tour, though - at the time - it was against military policy for women to serve in combat. Lopez says there were eight women with her unit on her second tour, along with around 200 men. She says the Army easily got around the prohibition against women in combat by using non-combat codes.
"Our codes were a maintenance unit where females are allowed, so on the books, it looks like we’re on the maintenance unit, but actually, we’re in an all-male combat unit," Lopez explains.
Yet Lopez was where she wanted to be. She was in the Army. She was in Iraq. Then came a fight in which a shock wave from a grenade damaged her heart. She had to have a valve replaced. Her military career was over. Lopez says she was heartbroken.
"I wanted to be in for twenty years, just like my dad. Just like my grandfather. Just like my great-grandfather, you know?" she says. "That’s what I’d planned on doing, being in for twenty years, and I didn’t know what to do with myself after that. "
That abrupt sense of aimlessness is sometimes how the descent into homelessness starts for veterans, and women are particularly vulnerable.
Kirsten Sobieski is Executive Director of the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative, as well as the Women Veterans Initiative, called WOVIN. She’s also an Army veteran, so she has a unique understanding of why women who’ve served are struggling.
Sobieski says a woman who’s served in the military is three times more likely to become homeless than a woman who hasn’t served in the military.
"For various reasons they aren’t as likely to seek out assistance through veteran’s organization, through the VA," she explains. "A lot of them, at one point or another, maybe don’t even identify themselves as being a veteran. Women tend to diminish their service a lot more than males."
And that’s not the end of the list.
Sobieski says the women may also be recovering from sexual trauma – one in five female veterans say they have experienced it.
Women may join the military in the first place because they don't have a stable home life, and there isn’t one awaiting them.
Women, like all veterans, may be struggling with PTSD, depression, or anxiety, as well as physical injury, like Rochelle Lopez.
Without help, things can unravel. Before long, Lopez and her fiancé – also a veteran – were living in their car in Milwaukee. She describes feeling overwhelmed by shame.
"It was just…where you never thought you would be, you know? And then thinking back, you know, I should have done this and I should have done that, and this is all my fault, and I’m so stupid, and I can’t believe it and I’m better than this, and maybe I’m not. Maybe I was never that person…you know, maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. Maybe I should have died," she says.
Lopez adds, through tears, "I think about that a lot."
When WOVIN’s Kirsten Sobieski hears about veterans like Lopez, their days of living in a car end.
"That’s something I feel very strongly about," Sobieski says. "When I know someone’s in their car, I don’t want them to spend another moment in their car. I will…we will do what we can to make sure they are safely housed that same day. "
Then Sobieski can help women veterans access the resources the country owes them, through the VA and other organizations, so they can begin to rebuild their lives.