By Helena Tavares Kennedy, Contributing Writer
More than 55,000 women U.S. military veterans across the nation are homeless, based on information from the nonproﬁt organization Final Salute, Inc. Let that number sink in. These are women who have fought and served our country, but found little support when needed.
Final Salute, Inc., provides support. It is the only organization in the Washington, D.C., area and only one of a few nationally that oﬀers housing to homeless female U.S. military veterans and their children, according to Ms. Veteran America, which named the organization the beneﬁciary of its 2012 competition.
Haymarket resident Jaspen (Jas) Boothe, founder of Final Salute, Inc., said she is on a mission to create a safety net for her sisters in arms. A veteran captain in the U.S. Army, where she served for 13 years, she was scheduled in 2005 to deploy to Iraq when struck by two life-changing blows. First, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, her hometown at the time. The storm rendered her homeless and destroyed all her possessions.
Just one month later, Boothe was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Discharged from the military due to her illness, she was in need of a job and a place for her and her young son to live. Boothe said that when she sought services as a veteran, she was told to look into welfare and other social service programs— a process she described as “demeaning.”
“People think of military in high regard and think, ‘Oh, they’ll be okay,’ but we aren’t,” said Boothe. “We face the same economic issues, divorce, domestic violence, job downsizing … just like any other American.”
Following extensive treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, Boothe went into remission, eventually joining the U.S. Army Reserve. She also began a job search which led her to the D.C. area. She has since married a U.S. Marine combat veteran, and her son, now grown, is joining the U.S. Air Force. However, Boothe said she always remembered her trials.
A Calling to Help Other Women Vets
“When the idea of creating Final Salute came to mind in 2010, I remembered Mark Twain’s quote that says, ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you ﬁnd out why.’ I embraced it when I realized this was my calling,” said Boothe.
She took a two-pronged approach for Final Salute. “H.O.M.E.” (Housing Outreach Mentorship Encouragement) provides temporary shared housing, along with resources for transitioning back to independence. For female veterans who are still in homes, but struggling ﬁnancially, “S.A.F.E.” (Savings Assessment and Financial Education) covers expenses such as utilities or a month’s rent.
While funding was diﬃcult at ﬁrst, Boothe said once she helped others understand the lack of services for female veterans, donations came in quickly. The group now operates three group homes for female veterans and their children.
A Final Salute home in Fairfax houses eight women veterans and their children. A house in Alexandria is home to 10 families. A volunteer also lives in and manages each of these homes. A third home, in Ohio, houses one woman and her children.
Final Salute Chairman of the Board Brian Drummond, son of Navy veterans, said he was stunned at how many homeless female veterans there are. “I was even more stunned that Jas was trying to help them one at a time,” he said.
Boothe said part of the problem is that most other programs focus on the disabled or addicted. Other veterans who fall on hard times can slip through the cracks.
Compounding the problem: More than half of shelters either don’t accept children or have restrictions based on age or number of children, according to the Government Accountability Oﬃce.
This lack of services comes at a time of increasing need. The U.S. Department of Veterans Aﬀairs reports that while overall veteran homelessness rates are dropping, the rate for female veterans is rising. “Women veterans are three to four times more likely to be homeless than male veterans,” Boothe said.
Since adding an online application process in April 2012, Final Salute has received more than 400 requests for assistance. Boothe said the organization, staﬀed entirely by unpaid volunteers, has helped 125 applicants since the ﬁrst home opened in November 2011.
“We can only serve about a third [of applicants] right now,” stated Boothe. “We wish we could serve everyone.”
Helping Veterans Start Over
Women from all over the country turn to Final Salute for help. However, Boothe said several clients living in the agency’s Virginia homes are from the area, including Army Reservist Chiquita Chavis, who lived in Prince William prior to being accepted into H.O.M.E.
Upon returning to her position as a defense contractor in 2010 after a tour in Afghanistan, “I had to interview for my job. … It was like starting over after coming back from deployment,” Chavis said.
She said that she was ﬁred shortly following the birth of her daughter. About the same time, her child’s father, also in the Army Reserve, could not work due to an injury. “We were stuck, until I met Jas at a job fair,” said Chavis.
Her babysitter for the fair had fallen through, and so Chavis was job hunting with her daughter in tow. Seeing this, Boothe oﬀered to watch the baby while Chavis met with employers.
Chavis did land a job and received ﬁnancial assistance from Final Salute, but “once you get behind, it’s hard to catch up,” she said. Boothe later welcomed Chavis into a Final Salute home. Chavis said she has since been promoted at her job, and is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan again in December.
Boothe designed Final Salute to empower the women in its programs. H.O.M.E. residents must take courses in ﬁnance, budgeting and résumé writing and attend job search-related events weekly if unemployed. Boothe said the most gratifying part of what she does is “being able to change a life, and, in some instances, being able to save a life.”
She added that she doesn’t want to be in business 20 years from now. “I want to get to the root cause of homelessness and stop it. I don’t want to keep putting band-aids on a national issue,” she said.
To that end, Boothe is garnering attention for her cause. She has been a guest on television programs such as Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” and ABC’s “Katie!” with Katie Couric. CNN named Boothe one of its 2013 “CNN Heroes,” recognizing her on its annual award show of the same name.
“My hope is that the government steps up and implements its own program to help women veterans stay out of homelessness,” said Boothe.
To learn more about Final Salute, including information on volunteering or donating, visit ﬁnalsaluteinc.org.
A nonproﬁt marketing director, Helena Tavares Kennedy also enjoys freelance writing in her spare time. She has lived in Manassas for 12 years with her husband and two children and can be reached at [email protected].