Three veterans and a representative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spoke about homelessness and other challenges female veterans face as well as the programs available to help veterans Tuesday at the Walter Cronkite School.
The event was part of the university-wide Salute to Service celebration to honor veterans and active military members at ASU. The panelists included biotechnology major Kelly Schramm, Madison Street Veterans Association employee Zeny Stuart, Veterans First Ltd. president Joan Sisco and Phoenix VA Health Care System social worker Melissa Meierdierks.
Schramm served two tours in Iraq as a medic with the Army. She was not discharged from the Army on time at the end of her last tour.
“I was supposed to get out in September, but my deployment wasn’t going to end until December,” Schramm said. “I couldn’t get out until they told me to get out.”
Schramm said she was given from December to February to transition out of the military and into civilian life, which caused excess stress.
“Not only was I dealing with integrating into civilian society, I had to do the transition in a very fast time,” Schramm said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go.”
Schramm eventually settled in Phoenix and moved from couch to couch until she found Mary Ellen’s Place, a community designed to provide affordable housing to female veterans.
Mary Ellen’s Place, which opened in May 2011, was founded by Sisco, a Marine Corps veteran.
“The dream was always to have transitional housing — from start to finish — and end homelessness,” Sisco said.
Sisco said that couch-surfing veterans are not considered homeless. But because they do not have a permanent place to stay, they risk becoming homeless. Mary Ellen’s Place accepts all female veterans regardless of their financial stability.
“Some of these women come from all kinds of different situations. They come into an apartment that is fully furnished,” Sisco said. “If they came in with the clothes on their back, they wouldn’t need anything.”
Stuart, who served two tours in Iraq, also spent time moving from couch to couch before Mary Ellen’s Place helped her. She now helps other veterans find stable housing.
“After my bout with homelessness, I realized you have more credibility when you’ve experienced something and can encourage other people to get through what you’ve gotten though,” Stuart said.
Meierdierks reaches out to veterans in ways beyond housing. Veterans Affairs workers register veterans for services and reach out to veterans in specific areas of the city.
Programs that utilize the light rail and bicycles as ways to reach veterans have proven successful, Meierdierks said. These programs are a result of the Plan to End Homelessness for Veterans set forth by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in 2009.
Veterans Affairs also offers community resources and referral centers, addiction therapists, peer support and other resources to help veterans claim their benefits.
“I feel like our female veterans are survivors,” Meierdierks said. “Many times they’ll find a resource, but they’ll never share it. They’re silent survivors.”
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Correction: Nov. 13, 2013
A previous version of this article misquoted a word in Kelly Schramm’s first quote. The error did not alter the meaning of Schramm’s quote. The quote has been updated to reflect what Schramm actually said.