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Ventura County

Stand Down Attracts Only 5 Homeless Female Vets

Military: Those at Ventura's event plan to spread the word about medical, legal and social services available.

July 29, 2001|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether on the battlefields of Da Nang or the Mekong Delta or in a tent pitched off a Simi Valley street, Vietnam veteran Barbara Newton has faced one fight after another.

Saturday morning the former U.S. Air Force medic sat on a cot inside a tent at Ventura College, one of a dozen shelters pitched on the athletic fields for 200 veterans at the 2001 Stand Down.

Newton was one of five women who came to the annual retreat, which provides a wide range of medical, social and legal services to homeless veterans.

As one of the few women to fly aboard medic helicopters in Vietnam, Newton was in familiar territory among the crowd of men at the ninth annual three-day event, which ends tonight.

Newton said she hopes next year's event will attract more female veterans living on the streets who are seeking help.

"There are women veterans living on the street and they don't know that they are included," said Matthew Eatman, a benefits counselor who works with homeless veterans in Los Angeles. "I come across them all the time."

Of the 271,000 veterans living on the streets on any given night across the country, only 1.6% are women, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Eatman said a large information network exists for homeless veterans to learn about events like Stand Down but the few female homeless veterans are more difficult to locate.

Eatman said the reasons they are homeless can be traced back to their time in the military.

"Show me a homeless woman vet and I'll show you a woman who had something bad happen to them in the military," Eatman said. Historically, women in the military have faced many forms of harassment, he said.

Newton and the other women who camped together were among the veterans who went from tent to tent Saturday picking up information on a range of social services. Some were interested in their military or medical benefits or receiving a bag containing a toothbrush, pants, shirts and shoes.

To keep non-veterans out of the popular event, men and women who entered the fenced-off campus grounds had their names put into a computer linked to Veterans Affairs that confirmed military service.

Attendees wore colored wristbands. Alcohol was forbidden and anyone leaving the grounds was barred from returning to avoid alcohol or drugs being smuggled into the tents, event officials said.

Those rules were fine with Newton. She said she hasn't had a drink for almost two years and has been living most recently in a transitional home after spending three years in tents and in a car on the streets between Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

A few cots away, former Navy electrical technician Priscilla Leonard, 49, said the work of women in the military has gone unrecognized for too long.

She plans to spread the word about Stand Down to other homeless female veterans she meets.

"We were never completely accepted, we were just tolerated," said Leonard, who was in the Navy from 1969 to 1971 and has been homeless for six months. "But women have made a huge contribution and I don't think they know about this."

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