May 25, 2015
After four years in the Army serving in Germany and Iraq, Danielle Chavez thought she had her life figured out.
"I thought it was gonna be a lot easier. Definitely, definitely a lot easier," Chavez said.
But when she left the military in 2011, her marriage ended, she struggled to pay for school and ended up living in her car. She had to send her two young girls to live with a relative.
"Every day I missed them. Every day. I felt like they were growing up without me," she said.
Asked whether being homeless was tougher on her physically or on her pride, Chavez said it was "definitely" tougher on her pride, because she didn't want people to know she was homeless.
"You don't want to admit that this is something that could happen when you're a veteran," Chavez said.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more than 4,456 homeless female veterans in the U.S., many of whom have children. They account for 8 percent of the nation's 58,000 homeless vets.
But a housing development that just opened in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles is providing hope in the form of a key. It's called Blue Butterfly Village -- built specifically for homeless female veterans with children. The former Navy housing was rotting away but has been given new life in order to give vets like Chavez a new life, as well.
"Oh my God, look -- that's where you can eat breakfast!" Chavez exclaimed, seeing the house for the first time.
Three weeks ago, she and her daughters moved into to the fully furnished home. The community playground is right outside their back door.
"We don't have to leave. I don't have to go anywhere. I don't have to move my car. I don't have to fold my blankets on somebody's couch. And people can come visit us here instead of us sleeping somewhere else," Chavez said.
There are 73 subsidized town homes in the complex. It cost $15 million to refurbish, paid for by the Volunteers of America. The veterans pay rent based on a sliding scale, but living there also comes with mental health counseling, job training, money management programs and childcare services. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald said the goal is to get these vets back on their feet, but they can stay here for the rest of their lives.
"We have lots of these that the Department of Defense is decommissioning. And we in the VA want to pick them up right away, we want to make them sites where we can best care for veterans," McDonald said. "This is the future."
Many of these veterans, including Mariatheresa Alcazar, suffer from PTSD. She was one of the first women to serve on an aircraft carrier and was stationed on the USS Carl Vinson during 9/11.
"It is a tough memory," Alcazar said, crying. "The military is a tough memory."
That's because she is also one the many women raped while serving their country.
A study by the Veteran's Health Administration found nearly 40 percent of female homeless veterans were sexually assaulted while in the military.
"I got assaulted by police officers in our military. And I thought I was so strong. ... I thought I could fight men off, even. And it's -- I can't. And that's just the truth about it," Alcazar said.
Alcazar's PTSD made it hard to keep a job. She wound up homeless with two young sons. But now, they've got a home at Blue Butterfly Village. Her boys have a place to play, and she has something she never thought she'd live without -- a bed.
Volunteers of America hopes to eventually take over 70 more vacant units owned by a nearby school. That would double the population at the village. Seventy more women like Alcazar would now have a home.
"It's freedom," Alcazar said. "I'm happy, and these are tears not of sadness but I'm happy ... because you don't have to worry about where you lay your head. You have an address."
And a foundation to build a better life with their families.