The alcoholism that led Theresa Meadows to become homeless took root during her first years in the Navy.

Homeless female vets

3,000(approximate)National estimate of homeless female veterans. 100Estimated number of homeless female veterans in Charleston. Very few have shown up locally who served in the recent conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq.Average picture of the Charleston homeless female vet Age:45 to 50 Martial status:divorced or never married 80 percentare substance abusersother 20 percentsuffer from post-traumatic stress, depression and sexual traumaNational statistics and the VA

It was the 1980s, and threats in the world were few. The party never stopped for the eager 22-year-old sailor.

“For some reason when I was in the Navy it was like ‘party city,’?” she said of duty stations that took her to Virginia Beach and San Diego. “Especially on the weekends. That’s all you did.”

After she got out in 1989, Meadows’ life hit a series of personal and relationship setbacks. Her Navy-fueled days of drinking escalated, partially to handle loneliness and as a means to self-medicate.

As her addiction intensified she lost her civilian career as a dental assistant (a skill the Navy had taught her), and places to stay. Family members cut her off, and she spent time living out of her car.

The lowest point came on Feb. 13 of this year. It was 2 a.m. She was in a $35 room at the Evergreen Motel on Savannah Highway. The physical toll from years of abuse suddenly took shape in the reflection of the stranger’s face staring back in the mirror. Her face.

“It was like ‘oh my God, who is this person?’?” said Meadows, 50. The face “was looking back saying ‘what have you done to me?’?”

Meadows, and hundreds of females like her, are now the fastest growing segment among America’s homeless veteran population. While the male ex-service grouping is actually declining, fully 5 percent of the country’s homeless vets are women, double that of the mid-2000s.

Just like men, drugs and alcohol abuse is a common factor. But women face additional hurdles as victims of sexual abuse, differing medical needs, higher unemployment and as the likely caretaker of dependent children.

Meadows, who has been sober for more than nine months, recently began staying in the Crisis Ministries shelter in Charleston. But it took years for her to discover that she even qualified for assistance through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

Numbers growing

Estimates vary for the number of homeless ex-service people wandering in the U.S. A national one-night survey taken last year found about 67,000 homeless veterans, of both sexes, living in shelters.

If those numbers are accurate, the population of homeless vets actually dropped by some 12 percent last year, from the 76,000 single-night count in 2010. It would also put the number of homeless female vets at about 3,300.

Locally, Charleston’s homeless female veteran population is pegged at less than 100, though officials admit that number is fluid.

In Charleston, Linda Williams, homeless program supervisor for the Ralph H. Johnson VA, said the average female vet client she sees mirrors the national trend — she is between 45 and 50 and either divorced or never married. About 80 percent are substance abusers, with the other 20 percent suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression or sexual trauma. Some patients come in showing symptoms of several issues at once.

Like their male counterparts, female homeless vets from the Afghan and Iraqi wars have been slow to surface in significant numbers in Charleston. Their increase will probably take some time to show, Williams said, emerging several years after the stresses of post-military life become a reality and force them on the streets.

“For a lot, when they first come back they have the loving support of their family,” she said. “They might have a husband or a family member who might let them live with them.”

Until those relationships turn bad and the homeless cycle begins, she said.

VA responds

Just like Meadows, Navy veteran Mary Ann Mason, 51, became homeless after years of substance abuse. She also started with alcohol use during her duty assignment in Puerto Rico.

“I was a sailor so I definitely learned to drink,” she said. “Boy, did I learn to drink,” she added for emphasis.

After leaving the service in 1990, Mason, of Beaufort, went on to a number of highly structured jobs that included corporate security and as a South Carolina corrections officer.

But severe alcohol and drug use followed, becoming her downfall. She too became homeless before going to the VA and finding recovery.

Today, after seeking treatment, Mason has a full-time job as an employment aide, crediting the VA for her turnaround.

Now in substance counseling, Mason said one area she would like to see expanded is the number of counseling services exclusive to women vets. Mixed classes have a purpose, she said, but if a woman feels intimidated opening up in her surroundings, “she is not going to assert herself, she is going to be run over.”

Two other simple changes the Ralph Johnson VA enacted to be more female-responsive were the addition of a separate waiting room for women, and facilities for female veterans who come with their children in tow.

Still, getting the word out about women’s services has not been easy for women reluctant to share space thought to be mostly for men.

“A lot of females still do not use the VA,” Williams said. “They are a little hesitant to use the VA sometimes because there are so many males.”

That’s true. On any given day, male veterans, some of whom can trace their service as far back as World War II and Korea, fill the Charleston VA’s narrow hallways, with barely a female vet to be seen.

Mason was homeless for about a year before she sought VA help. That compares to three or four years of living on the streets reported by Charleston area homeless male veterans, according to recent interviews.

The Obama administration has pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015, which means more will have to be done address women specifically since women now make up 8 percent of all service veterans, or close to 2 million people.

Finding beds

On the national level it is widely accepted that housing, beds and transitional living needs for women has not kept up with the demand.

The shortcomings are even more emphasized in the lack of space for single mothers caring for one or more children, or space that adequately separates women who are victims of sexual assaults, from males in shelters.

Bed space for homeless female veterans in the Charleston is arranged through various shelters and other government offerings. In the last year, 33 women have been served through the VA’s homeless program.

Meadows reported having the best sleep of her life once she made the emotional commitment to leave the streets for a shelter bed.

“The first night I slept at Crisis Ministries, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was like ‘OK,’?” she added of finally accepting she needed help to change.

“I suffered for that,” she said of not wanting to swallow her pride and seek — ask — for help. It meant the end of begging family members for money or in pawning things she owned for ready cash.

At the shelter, she has met other female vets who have similar stories about falling down and seeking help, including a Marine who told of being homeless and being stabbed eight times.

Living in close quarters is nothing new for Meadows. In the Navy she served on ships and was part of the first few classes of women the Pentagon allowed at sea.

Meanwhile, the VA got into counseling and helped with medical issues ranging from pancreatic problems to enduring four operations tied to her breast cancer.

Meadows’ future

Meadows is still living in the shelter, but her goal is to rekindle her dental career. She spends her days reading, or visiting the VA. She wants to get an apartment “and stand on my own two feet.”

Meanwhile, there is a lot of praying for patience.

“It’s on God’s time, not mine,” she said. “I have to realize that.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.