SAN DIEGO Ann Reeder was living in a cardboard box on Skid Row in Los Angeles with a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a crack pipe in her hand when she felt time stop and started running.
"I think I was running for my life," Reeder said.
Reeder, 46, spent nearly 20 years in and out of homelessness after she was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1987. The return to civilian life was difficult for Reeder, who said she struggled with the psychological effects of a rape while she was in the military. She became an alcoholic and drug addict, had trouble holding down a job and distanced herself from family.
"We're supposed to come back and be daughters and mothers and sisters and go back to work. Some people can," Reeder said. "The problem is how do I detach myself from being a soldier?"
Though women are still a small percentage of homeless veterans, they're at much higher risk of homelessness than their male veteran counterparts, and their numbers are growing, according to a joint report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs released Feb. 10.
Many homeless female veterans are on the streets of Los Angeles and San Diego, which each already contain large homeless veteran populations. As is the case with male veterans, combat trauma, substance abuse and a difficult economy are the most common reasons female veterans become homeless. Military sexual trauma and violent abusive relationships also are risk factors for female veterans.
"The services and resources for women veterans need to catch up with those already being offered to males," said Marilyn Cornell, clinical director of Veterans Village of San Diego, a nonprofit that offers programs for veterans.
The number of homeless female veterans seeking services at Veterans Village of San Diego's annual Stand Down event doubled from 26 in 2009 to 52 in 2010, Cornell said.
"That's a huge jump," Cornell said, adding that historically many women have not identified as veterans and were not aware of their benefits.
Concern is growing as more veterans return from Afghanistan and Iraq to a bad economy on the home front.
The number of women who become homeless after leaving the military had doubled in the last decade to about 6,500 nationwide by the fall of 2010, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"A lot of homeless shelters for veterans do not accept women, much less women with children," said Genevieve Chase, founder and executive director of American Women Veterans, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "They've just been falling through the cracks."
The fastest growing segment of the homeless veteran population is women with children, Chase said.
Chase, an Afghan war veteran, believes more resources for female veterans are needed.
"I'm extremely worried that what we're doing isn't going to happen fast enough to help the women who need it," Chase said.
Learning about the services available to her was helpful to U.S. Army veteran Esther Bailey.
Bailey, 48, was homeless for two years until last October, when she entered Veterans Village of San Diego. After leaving the military in 1986, Bailey was a wife and mother and held a civilian job as a customer service representative. But years later, she became involved in an abusive relationship and developed a substance abuse problem. When she left the relationship, she became homeless.
"Every night, I would retreat to my tent," Bailey said. "My tent became my little sanctuary."
Since entering the residential treatment facility at Veterans Village, Bailey has learned that she has post-traumatic stress disorder, and may have some anxiety issues. She's been sober for 90 days and looks forward to having a home and job and reconnecting with family.
"My life depends on it," she said.
Reeder knows about new beginnings. After she got therapy through a post-traumatic stress disorder group that addressed her experience as a female veteran and met other female veterans, she got sober in 2003.
Now, she is a student at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, where she has founded a women's veterans group that meets monthly and is also the women veterans coordinator for Amvets Post 116 in Culver City.
"I'm really motivated because I'd like to be part of the solution," Reeder said.