Ms. Veteran America's Mission to End Female Veteran Homelessness
Molly Potter raises awareness for mental health issues
Molly Potter's midcentury home stands out among the cottages and Craftsman-style abodes that line Jim Hogg Avenue. It's tucked away at the back of a small, fenced-in lot. Tall trees obscure its white stucco facade.
Inside, mismatched furniture divides the open floor plan. A funky diorama made by Potter's former banjo teacher hangs on the wall above a handmade banquet table. Next to it are three framed drawings sketched by her grandfather. Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson prayer candles stand on the windowsill.
In the living area hangs an outsize custom map crafted by Potter's live-in partner, Tate. Round thumbtacks pepper the seven continents. They represent all the places Potter's visited – she wants to reach 100 cities before she's 50. "When I started over with my life, I wanted to surround myself with things that made me happy," says the 31-year-old Air Force veteran from Pilot Mountain, N.C. "I walk into this house, and it makes me happy."
It took Potter years to get to this point. Six years ago, on the morning of Sept. 11, a mortar struck the base where she was stationed in southern Afghanistan. The concrete wall barricading the dining hall she had just left shielded her from shrapnel. But the force of the blast knocked her unconscious. She woke up on the gravel road dazed, her sandwich and Doritos scattered everywhere.
Potter suffered a traumatic brain injury, but she wouldn't discover that until three years later. That's when she also learned she had post-traumatic stress disorder. She tried hard to function in those intervening years. But the facade she built eventually collapsed under the weight of her undiagnosed conditions. "I'd had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning," says Potter, who is District 4 Council Member Greg Casar's appointee on the city's Commission on Veterans Affairs. "I didn't really have a purpose."
Potter began therapy in spring 2013 and left the military that November. A few months later, she landed a job with Dell Computers in Austin. Before she relocated, though, Potter found herself close to homelessness. She struggled to find work because employers couldn't see past her military background, she says. Unemployed, she relied on family and friends to keep her afloat, financially and emotionally. "I was very, very lucky on many levels," she says. "If I hadn't had that, I would have been another female veteran with mental health issues that had left the military that couldn't find a job and had no money."
Potter has spent the last year raising money for Final Salute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates for homeless female veterans and their kids. Her fundraising campaign is part of her quest for the title of Ms. Veteran America, a yearly competition "to honor women beyond the uniform," says Jaspen Boothe, founder of Final Salute. Potter is one of 25 finalists – and the first from Austin – who will vie for the crown on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C.
The woman crowned Ms. Veteran America will spend the next year touring the country, attending parades, fundraisers, and other events to raise awareness about female veteran homelessness. The winner will also act as a role model for young women and girls interested in military service. "You are the pillar of excellence, of grace, poise, composure," says Potter, who hosts a Final Salute benefit concert this Friday, Sept. 23, at Stunt Ranch. "It's really being an articulate and well-versed voice on behalf of female veterans."
The Fastest-Growing Segment
Potter's life began to unravel in November 2010, after she returned from deployment. Her marriage had ended. She felt anxious all the time. She ran instead of eating. She obsessed over every pound. At night, she couldn't sleep. When she did – and that was rare – she'd have night terrors.
Things became worse after Potter started her dream job at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. She worked as a flight test engineer. She soared over the desert in the back of fighter aircrafts. One of only a few women at the base, Potter rose fast through the ranks. At work her life seemed put-together. But at home, Potter slipped further into depression. She began to see her role in the military differently – she wanted to help others, she says, but instead was designing programs "to more efficiently kill people." Alone in Las Vegas, she isolated herself from her family. She became stoic. But slowly, the wall between home and work crumbled. Her performance floundered. Her focus blurred. A bad car wreck in March 2013 was her breaking point. "The mental health exacerbated itself and it started to steamroll," she says. "It was just getting worse and worse. I said, 'I need help. Just get me help.'"
Her commander, Todd Ericson, and her mother helped Potter get the services she needed; that's when Potter received her PTSD and traumatic brain injury diagnoses. Shortly after, she began cognitive behavioral therapy. When her therapy work stalled, her mother insisted she take their family dog, a black and white terrier mix named Bella. Bella was so vital to her mental health, Potter says, that she had her trained and certified as a service dog. That September, she helped change U.S. Department of Defense policy to allow soldiers dealing with PTSD to bring service dogs on base. Two months later, she was honorably discharged from the military. "I wanted to end my Air Force career on a good note," Potter says as her other dogs, Freckleberry Finn and Brandi Rae, bounce around at her feet.
Potter recognizes that her loved ones helped take her off the path to homelessness. But so many of her fellow female veterans, she says, don't have the same privilege. "The number one reason for homelessness, period, is a lack of support," Potter says.
Nationally, women make up only 9% of over 47,700 veterans who are homeless on any given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yet as the overall homeless veteran population decreases, the number of female homeless veterans continues to rise – more than tripling since 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service. And those statistics don't represent homeless female veterans who couch-surf. Take that into account, and the figure jumps to 55,000, according to Final Salute. "These numbers are staggering," says Potter. "It's really a disgrace to our nation."
Congressional research has found that female veterans are four times more likely to become homeless than their non-veteran counterparts. That's because of the unique challenges they face in civilian life, says Edith Disler, director of external relations at the Texas Veterans Commission. Women who've served are less likely to be employed than male veterans. They experience higher rates of PTSD. They are nearly six times more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans. And most homeless female veterans have children, but won't seek shelter if that means shelter policy will separate them from their kids. "If I had to find shelter, your average shelter would say, 'Your son has to go sleep over here with the men and your daughter can go with you over here with these women,'" says Disler, an Air Force retiree. "Think about that scenario for women veterans who have children."
Advocates say that, to end female veteran homelessness, there needs to be an increase in transitional family housing as well as better mental health services offered by the beleaguered U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Locally, city officials are starting to better understand that "homelessness is not monolithic," says Casar. Much of that has to do with Potter's work on the Commission on Veterans Affairs. The council member says Potter actively pushes the city to both recognize and improve services for female veterans. "I know she is critical that we haven't sufficiently prioritized issues of homelessness that face female veterans," he says. "I hope and expect that her advocacy will make [us] better."
Never a Pageant, Always a Movement
On Oct. 9, five female veterans each representing one military branch will judge Potter and the other Ms. Veteran America competitors on women's military history, advocacy work, personality, and talent. There's also a physical fitness test, G.I. Joanna, that the women can compete in as "something fun," Boothe says. Each finalist embodies a range of cultures, characteristics, bodies, and abilities that represent "the diversity women have brought to all branches of the military," says Boothe. "The fact that we all served is our common bond. We served wearing that same uniform under the same American flag."
The finalists, though, won't be judged on bathing suits or evening wear. But that's what people imagine when they hear the phrase "Ms. Veteran America," Boothe says. "They thought the event would be exploitative until they actually saw what it was about. When you see the crown and the sash, you automatically think pageant.
"It's never been a pageant. It's always been a movement," she adds.
Boothe, Potter, and other advocates recognize that the way female veterans are perceived has as much to do with how female veterans perceive themselves. Many women don't seek help because they don't self-identify as veterans, says Anna Baker, manager of the Texas Veterans Commission's Women Veterans Program. They internalize the message that a veteran is "somebody who served in combat or they did 20 years in the military," Baker says. "They don't feel like they are deserving of the veteran status, so they don't ask for services."
Nor do they talk about their time in the military. Advocates say female veterans tend to keep quiet about their service once they enter civilian life. "You can be sitting next to three women at the bar and between them they have 75 years of military experience but you never really know it," Disler says.
That goes back to perception. Female veterans are treated as damsels in distress, unlike their male counterparts, who are seen as strong and resilient, Boothe says. On the other hand, she continues, people fail to identify female veterans "in the additional roles we have as women" – as caregivers, mothers, wives, daughters, breadwinners. That is why she created Ms. Veteran America – to challenge the narratives people give female veterans.
"We don't get judged on evening gowns. We just get to wear evening gowns," Potter says. "There's nothing about this that's a beauty contest."
On Aug. 19, HUD Secretary Julián Castro traveled to Austin to declare that the city has "ended veteran homelessness." The decree comes nearly two years after former Mayor Lee Leffingwell accepted the Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, an interagency initiative announced by First Lady Michelle Obama in June 2014. To date, two states and 29 cities, including Austin, have achieved the call to action, housing a total of over 680 veterans, according to HUD.
"This issue has always been very dear to my heart," says Mayor Steve Adler, whose father was a disabled vet. "They are people that have given a lot for the country and those folks, as well as others, shouldn't be sleeping under bridges."
When Adler took up the challenge, he convened a group of city and state officials, housing advocates, service providers, and business leaders to increase resources and beef up housing accessible to homeless veterans. He also created the Housing Heroes fund to incentivize landlords and other property owners to offer apartments to veterans. So far, the fund has raised over $370,000, according to the mayor's office.
Austin didn't actually end veteran homelessness, though. Instead, we only reached "functional zero." By HUD's standard, that means the city has a system in place to make veteran homelessness "rare, brief, and one-time," says Bill Block, HUD's special consultant on homelessness. "It doesn't mean you will never have a homeless veteran. It means that ... if and when a veteran becomes homeless, they are quickly connected with housing that meets their needs."
A city has to meet five criteria in order to meet HUD's benchmark, says Block: Identify all homeless veterans, provide immediate shelter to those who want it, provide service-intensive transitional housing in limited cases, move veterans into permanent housing within 90 days, and be able to help veterans at risk of homelessness in the future. Block says it took four months from when Austin submitted its application to confirm the city had ended veteran homelessness.
Potter bristles at the avowal. The bold language used by officials – and recited by media outlets – diminishes in the public eye the issue at hand, she says. It's not that the city hasn't achieved a great deal in addressing veteran homelessness, but, Potter says, there's much more work to be done, especially for female veterans. "When we say things like we've ended veteran homelessness, it puts the brakes on the momentum that's going," she argues. "It needs to be, 'Okay, we have reached functional zero, which means that we, as a community, have been able to rally behind the veteran community, so we need to do more. We need to make this even better.'"
Adler doesn't disagree. "The job is far from done," he says. "We have to keep working together, but I'm real proud of what we've done so far."
Molly Potter is raising funds for Final Salute via Crowdrise. Its Stuntstrong benefit concert takes place Fri., Sept. 23, at Stunt Ranch, 13317 Fitzhugh. For more info, visit www.stuntranch.com/concert-series.