Over the past decade, the number of female veterans who have become homeless has nearly doubled to roughly 6,500, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of them are younger than 35.
One of them is Cherish Cornish. Since June, the 29-year-old has lived on the fifth floor of a temporary housing facility run by Father Bill's & MainSpring, a private nonprofit group in Brockton, Mass. Cornish lives in one of five rooms reserved for homeless female veterans. She's struggling to make a life for herself after the military.
"When I joined the Army, I was barely 20 years old," Cornish says with a Southern accent, a legacy of years growing up in Texas. "I come out, and I'm 23, and so I just kind of came of age in the military. I wind up on my own again in an apartment. It's the first time I've had to pay rent since I was a teenager. It's the first time I had to pay a light bill pretty much ever and all these responsibilities and budgeting and stuff that I'd really never had to deal with in the military."
There are other complications. Cornish suffers from PTSD. It took the VA several years to diagnose her. Cornish believes her trauma stems from her service in Iraq. She was a transmission specialist working at isolated outposts monitoring and intercepting radio communications. Still, she thinks she lucked out, because often she'd just miss getting physically hurt.
"I was on a checkpoint doing some guard duty one day, and as soon as we left, a sniper attacked and we heard the gunfires," she says. "We were driving away and looked back and saw them engaged in actual combat. And we'd just left there."
Amy Street, a psychologist for the National Center for PTSD at Boston's VA health care system, says that women's roles in the military are different these days.
"These wars are unique in terms of women's roles both in terms of the number of women who are serving, but also in terms of the types of duties and the types of responsibilities that they have in the war zone," she says. "And I'm not sure that our country's perception of women as warriors has caught up with what's happening on the ground."
There are misperceptions about what's happening when women soldiers return home. Women veterans are running into all sorts of obstacles, including homelessness. But many of these women aren't turning to the VA for help. Cornish says she tried, but clinics were too far away. And there were other problems.
"The groups that they did have around the area were almost all men," Cornish says. "And most of them did not believe that women were combat veterans. Most of them didn't believe women were veterans period that we don't serve that much of a purpose in the military. And definitely in a combat zone. They just assumed that we were paper pushers that we were far behind the lines. And that's not true."
The VA says it's working to improve its care for women. Still, they're not there yet, which is why women like Cornish go to nonprofits like Father Bill's & MainSpring.
"To have an organization like ours that isn't necessarily associated with the military it might be a little bit more accessible [for female veterans]," says April Connolly, a social worker at that program. "And I think that's the idea for the VA to be involved with us, to really start reaching out to private nonprofits so that they're getting their services available, which is amazing to the people who have served."
So for now, Cornish has found a place that she can call home.