Boston Globe: A fresh start for homeless women veterans in Northampton

NORTHAMPTON — Jane Geary struggled up two flights of stairs with full shopping bags and clothes hangers dangling from her overloaded fingers. It was moving day, a wonderful day, a day unlike any Geary had known.

The 55-year-old Navy veteran does not have a home of her own. But Tuesday, Geary and 11 other women embarked on a bright, promising chapter in their lives as they moved into a new residence for homeless women veterans.

“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” Geary said, shaking her head and breaking into a smile at the wonder of it.

She and the other women now have individual apartments in a bright, sparkling residence as part of a program run by Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization.

For these women, part of the wonder is that someone cares at all. Most suffered sexual abuse in the military, and Geary, a former nurse who once lived in Gardner, also deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I never felt like I fit in anywhere,” Geary said. “Here, it’s a different story.”

That story will unfold in a $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet that contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

‘I never felt like I fit in anywhere. Here, it’s a different story.’
Jane Geary, talking about moving in to her Soldier On apartment

“This is a safe place to be. They make sure of that,” said Geary, who became homeless after her husband died and she struggled with drugs and alcohol. “They love you until you can love yourself, and that’s very new to me.”

It’s a place designed for women and run by women, where men can enter only by invitation. Soldier On is one of a limited number of residences for homeless women veterans in the state, but the three-story residence is the latest effort to meet a growing need as more women join the military.

Kathy Copeland, a 47-year-old Navy veteran, said she is still in disbelief over her new apartment. “When I look at it, I say to myself, ‘Wow, that’s for us.’ ”

Women made up 9 percent of homeless veterans this year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. That percentage, encompassing more than 4,000 women, tracks closely with their representation in the armed forces, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

But women veterans, for reasons that are unclear, are slightly more likely to become homeless than their male counterparts, said Randy Brown, spokesman for the nonprofit coalition.

“Women come to us incredibly broken,” said Sara Scoco, the women’s program director for Soldier On.

When the women arrived at a previous Soldier On facility, some did not speak because of their trauma. Others cried for weeks.

“All of our women experienced trauma before the military — childhood abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse,” Scoco said. “Many of them went into the military to escape trauma and were re-traumatized instead.”

The program is located on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and parallels a Soldier On effort that serves 265 homeless male veterans here and in Pittsfield. The women’s services, however, carry a distinct imprint.

There are cooking classes, art instruction, and beadwork — all part of a holistic strategy to meet the mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of a vulnerable, traumatized group.

“Many of these women don’t realize what their strengths are,” Scoco said.

Low self-esteem and nagging fear sapped much of that strength. But with mental-health counseling, volunteer work in the community, and opportunities for schooling and employment, those strengths are being rediscovered and nurtured, Scoco said.

“I’m learning what it’s like to not be a victim,” said LouAnn Hazelwood, a 60-year-old Army veteran who is the oldest woman in the program. The youngest is 26, and only one day of active-duty service is required for eligibility.

More than 1,500 women have been helped since the program began in 2005, said Jack Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On. Per-diem payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs meet some of the program’s expenses; up to 30 percent of a resident’s income, if there is any, helps meet others. Donations and grants make up the rest.

When the program began, women were placed in the same building as men on the VA campus. Later, the women moved separately to two aging cottages that once housed doctors who worked at the hospital.

But now, set on a slope and surrounded by greenery, the women have a semi-secluded place of their own.

Downing said the new building has been designed to accommodate homeless women veterans with children. That’s an uncommon pairing, Downing said, because many women remain in abusive relationships to protect their children from homelessness.

No children are living at Soldier On now, but a flexible design will allow apartments to be reconfigured when needed, Downing said.

On Monday evening, Geary anxiously awaited the move-in the morning. Boxes had been packed, clothing had been sorted, and a promising chapter in a difficult journey lay only hours ahead.

But first there was a treat.

A women’s group had invited Geary and the other veterans to a country club for dinner and a dance, and Geary wanted to look special. For this, she donned a dress and a necklace.

“I don’t wear a dress too often,” Geary said, a small smile creasing her face. “And this is an opportunity to put one on.”

For Geary, the night out represented another small checkpoint on the road to stability. It’s a long journey, Geary acknowledged, but it’s one she wants to see through.

“There’s more that I need to work on, so that I don’t have to come back when I leave here,” she said. “I want to be a success.”
The $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

-By Globe Reporter Brian MacQuarrie