Sandra Stillman was unemployed and facing eviction this past fall.
Unsure of where to turn, a friend told her about a new nonprofit helping women like her, an Army veteran and divorced mother of two.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Stillman avoided homelessness by moving into a large house in Fairfax, now shared with four other female veterans, which is run by the nonprofit Final Salute.
“I don’t look at this as a shelter. I look at it as a starting over situation,” said Stillman, who said she and her children also spent some time in a domestic violence shelter just prior to her divorcing her husband. “I can focus on doing what is necessary to get back on my feet.”
She just started a new full-time job, although Final Salute will allow her to stay at the home for as long as two years, if she still needs the support.
Final Salute founder and Army Capt. Jasmine Boothe, who now lives in Haymarket, can directly relate to the experiences of the women she is trying to help.
In 2005, as an Army reservist in New Orleans about to be deployed to Iraq, she got a double whammy from Hurricane Katrina in August, which claimed all of her belongings, and a cancer diagnosis in September. At the time, she also was a single mother.
She was not happy with the resources available to her as a female veteran.
“As a soldier, part of our warrior ethos is to never leave a fellow comrade behind,” she said. “No one is really looking out for women veterans.”
The biggest obstacle facing the thousands of homeless female veterans, as compared to male veterans, is most of the housing programs established for veterans do not allow children, according to a December 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Once Boothe had stabilized her own life, ending up with a position at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington and living in Northern Virginia, she began working to establish an organization that would help other female veterans in need. She launched Final Salute in 2010.
The goal is to give women and their children a safe place to stay and get back on their feet. The women also are given support in finding a job or whatever other assistance they might need through an individualized plan.
“Once you’re able to take housing out of the area of worry, they’re able to focus on their careers or school,” Boothe said. “They’re able to get back to being the strong performers that they are.”
Ozora, an active member of the National Guard who asked that her full name not be used, said she has struggled to strike out on her own since separating from her husband. Final Salute is “a blessing,” she said.
When she was worrying about where to sleep each night, she was having trouble focusing on school. She is working on a degree in mental health with a focus on substance abuse counseling.
“It was really stressful; I couldn’t focus,” she said. She moved into the Final Salute house in March. “Here I’m more comfortable and relaxed.”
The house in Fairfax is the first and only transitional housing that Final Salute operates, although Boothe has plans to expand her services to more houses and more cities over time. However, as a relatively new nonprofit, fundraising remains a barrier to expansion for the time being.
There currently are about 20 women on the waiting list for housing at the current facility, Boothe said.