Veteran Joanne Netto poses for a photograph. Photo by Scott Ball.
Veteran Joanne Netto walks around downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

Journalists often are often planning their next story even while in the process of writing one. But Lily Casura, a freelance reporter and Rivard Report contributing writer, is taking a different approach to female veteran homelessness. She’s reporting and conducting in-depth research on the topic with the help of a $19,500 grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Lily Casura
Lily Casura

Casura is one of the nine journalists chosen from a pool of 650 applicants to receive the grant drawn from the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. With the grant, Casura will create a multimedia project using videos, photography, data visualization, a website for female veterans to use as a wellness resource, and a long-form journalism piece to be published in a magazine and on the Web. The comprehensive project will highlight the under-reported issue of homeless women veterans, and bring newfound attention to their plight.

Casura suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome in the ‘90s. Doctors told her that she would have the illness for the rest of her life because there was no cure. But instead of settling, she took it upon herself to find a cure by doing research and talking to experts. She’s taking the same approach for her research on female veteran homelessness.

Casura said the project’s goal, titled “Invisible No More,” is to let people know that female veterans who need help exist.

“I’m hoping to help America to see them, when they haven’t before,” she said.

Although Casura is now tapping into the hardships of female veterans, 10 years ago she started the Healing Combat Trauma website, a place for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder to seek guidance and help.

UTSA’s College of Public Policy Lecturer Dr. Paul Furukawa, a veteran himself, caught wind of Casura’s website and asked her to guest lecture his course. His Transformational Leadership course focused students on creating a website about a social issue they felt was underrepresented in the media.

“I saw the awards, recognition and the following that (her website) had and I realized that she was certainly the right one to ask to give a brief talk at the beginning of the semester to my students,” he said.

Paul Furukawa. Courtesy photo.
Paul Furukawa. Courtesy photo.

That one-time visit turned into about six visits to a class that only meets 14 times a semester.

“All of (her visits) proved to be valuable to the students,” he said.

Furukawa said Casura’s research on female veteran homelessness is “righting a wrong,” and he’s “truly amazed” at the methods she is using to retrieve information.

Casura, who’s in graduate school for social work, was required to write a policy paper on a social issue and she chose to research female veteran homelessness.

People often think of homeless veterans as “older white men from the Vietnam-era who have substance abuse problems and a lot of mental health issues … and they sleep under a bridge and they carry a cardboard sign,” Casura said.

That mental image is a misleading stereotype. The percentage of female veterans is rising, while those numbers are decreasing for their male counterparts.

“But the world hasn’t caught up yet,” Casura said.

Many of the female veterans who are homeless suffer from military sexual trauma (MST). Women veterans who are victims of sexual assault in the military, until recently a problem that won little attention or action by military commanders, tend to suffer from depression and feelings of isolation. Women often don’t feel comfortable seeking treatment from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Casura said

“The last thing they want to do is walk through a room with a bunch of male veterans, some of whom remind them of being attacked,” she said.

Instead, she’s found that the women congregate online. Casura posted a comment in a female veterans Facebook group asking a series of questions relating to homelessness. More than 400 comments were added to the thread in 24 hours.

Casura quickly realized she had stumbled onto an important and neglected topic that female veterans were anxious to address.

When she asked women if they were veterans, oftentimes the women responded with a “no.”

Why? Phrasing, Casura said, saying she learned to ask them: “Did you ever serve in the U.S. military?”

The 2014 Armed Forces River Parade. Photo by Scott Ball.
The 2014 Armed Forces River Parade. Photo by Scott Ball.

Because of that kind of reticence, Casura said female veterans are not getting the resources they need to support themselves.

The federal government, meanwhile, only considers a person homeless if her or she lives on the street or in a shelter. Homeless female veterans aren’t being accounted for because most don’t fit that description, Casura said.

“Women sleep on someone’s couch. They sleep in their cars, or they stay in violent relationships,” Casura said. “It’s better, in their opinion, to put up with that than expose their kids to something potentially worse.”

Air Force Col. (Ret.) Lisa Firmin, now UTSA ‘s associate provost for diversity and recruitment, said female veterans are a sub-population that demands attention.

“The VA is starting to take notice of this population and is trying to provide services, but they are not where they need to be in my opinion,” Firmin said. “In fact, many of the services for women vets are co-located with male services and that makes it difficult for their needs to be met in a safe and comfortable environment.”

Casura began conducting her own research after she completed her class project. She devised a survey using SurveyRock to collect demographic information about women veterans in general, but also asked if they had experienced periods of homelessness following their military service. The survey was distributed by members of the veterans community. Casura received almost 500 responses.

“So suddenly, I was doing research and not just reporting on it,” she said, adding that she hopes to publish her findings in a social science journal.

“There are great articles that you work on but then you go on, but this has got its own universe of stuff that still needs to happen,” she said.

*Featured/top image: Veteran Joanne Netto walks around downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....