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Rate Of Homeless Female Vets Rises Near Fort Bragg

DAVID GREENE, host: More than 200,000 women have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While their numbers are small compared to their male counterparts, many women veterans are facing the same problems finding employment and affordable housing. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the Army's Fort Bragg, the number of homeless female veterans is rising rapidly. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio reports that many of them are young women with children.

JESSICA JONES: Siniyai and Clarese McLean have been living in local shelters and friends' apartments for nearly eight months now. A few days ago, they moved with their mother to Jubilee House, a facility for female veterans and their children. The McLean sisters, who have big brown eyes and shy smiles, say they like it here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because it's big, and they cook for us, and they give us snacks, every night before we take our shower.

JONES: Siniyai is eight and Clarice is six. Their mother, Shawn McLean, has struggled to find a job since she got out of the Army three years ago. They left their last rental after another resident threatened them. McLean hasn't been able to find a place she and her daughters can afford.

SHAWN MCLEAN: It's hard, not knowing if you're going to be able to feed them, if it's going to rain, if it's going to be too cold outside. It's just hard.

JONES: McLean was a water purification specialist in the Army for three years. Now she wishes she had never left.

MCLEAN: I thought I was going to get out here, find a job, maybe related to what I did in the military, and everything else was going to just fall into place.

JONES: Across the country, women make up between three to six percent of the homeless veteran population. But in communities like Fayetteville, which has a big military base, their numbers are growing fast. Female vets now make up 18 percent of the city's homeless veteran population.

Susan Angell heads the Veterans Administration's homeless initiative.

SUSAN ANGELL: One of the challenges is reaching them. I think once we reach them we can do a really, really thorough job of providing assistance, providing resources.

JONES: Angell says female veterans are not always proactive about signing up for their benefits. But she says two new V.A. programs and a hotline designed for homeless vets should help women.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness morning, by morning, new...

JONES: It's mid-afternoon at Jubilee House, where shelter residents, guests, and employees are gathered in a common area for a graduation ceremony. Female veterans and their children are allowed to stay here for up to ninety days, as long as they actively search for work. Barbara Summey-Marshall is the executive director.

BARBARA SUMMEY-MARSHALL: The piece that's most important is for a woman veteran to have confidence in herself. And as long as you have that confidence in yourself and have a good supporting cast, I think you can make it.

JONES: Summey-Marshall spent 15 years in the Navy, eventually becoming a chaplain. She says the women who stay at Jubilee House have struggled with everything from PTSD to bankruptcy. Judy Hilburn is a former army mechanic who lost her house after she got sick and couldn't pay her medical bills. Hilburn says Summey-Marshall helped her apply for veterans benefits she didn't realize she qualified for.

JUDY HILBURN: I've always been a strong person, but when you have enough bad things happen, you know, you lose that confidence. But she gave me the confidence to pull myself back up and to get back out there.

JONES: Hilburn has started her own business cleaning houses for property management companies. And she's signed a lease on an apartment she's thrilled to finally call home.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.