As we mark Veterans Day on Wednesday, a federal holiday that honors men and women who have served in the armed forces, one veteran is working to raise awareness about a growing problem in New Jersey and across the country — the rise of homeless women veterans.

Lt. Commander Kristin Leone, who served as a nurse in Kandahar, Afghanistan, five years ago, is in the Navy Nurse Corps Reserves and teaches nursing at several universities while also working part time in the intensive care unit at Virtua Voorhees Hospital.

Leone is a Top 25 Finalist in Ms. Veteran America 2020, a contest with proceeds focused on raising awareness about the issue of homeless women who have served in the military.

She said officially there are 4,300 homeless women veterans in New Jersey and across the country but the real number is probably double or triple that because homeless population counts may easily miss these people.

“Most women, fearing for their own safety and the safety of their children, they’re not going to be outside. They may be in their cars, they may be couch surfing with friends and family, so they’re not going to get counted in the numbers," she said.

She said Veteran’s Administration hospitals do ask vets if they need housing assistance “but we also know 80% of women veterans are not using the VA for their services, so that leaves a large population of women veterans that are unsupported and under-represented.”

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Leone said women veterans make up the fastest growing demographic of homelessness.

New Jersey is estimated to have about 550 homeless veterans.

“We don’t know how bad the problem is even in our own state and it also makes it really difficult to allocate resources," she said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said no specific numbers of homeless veterans are kept by the state and two federally funded residential living facilities for homeless veterans in the state are male-only.

The state also has 12 transitional housing facilities for homeless women veterans but none allow for children, Leone said.

“Even at the VA level there are very minimal programs to help homeless women veterans, and even fewer who help homeless women veterans who have children," she said.

“The reality is women have been serving in the military or helping in the military since the Revolutionary War; we’ve been here all along, faithfully serving our country. We’re on carriers and in submarines and in combat and we are in ranger units and marine units."

She said an organization called Final Salute is now dedicated to helping homeless women veterans and their children get back on their feet and find safe and suitable housing in New Jersey and other states.

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