Profile: Homeless Heroes

A cancer diagnosis and medical discharge from the Reserves put “Jas” Boothe close to being homeless. Now she’s fighting the Battle for All Homeless Female Vets.

A cancer diagnosis and medical discharge from the Reserves put “Jas” Boothe close to being homeless. Now she’s fighting the Battle for All Homeless Female Vets.

By Tim Regan

Jaspen Boothe of Finale Salute, Inc.
Photo by Aaron Spicer

What does a homeless veteran look like? The stereotype says they’re begging on the corner, dressed in tattered clothing and holding signs.

For thousands of female homeless veterans, that unfair stereotype is the farthest thing from the truth. Although they’re one of the fastest growing homeless populations in America, little is known about these women, because they suffer in silence.

But former Army Reservist Jaspen Boothe aims to change all of that with her organization, Final Salute Inc., the only Metro-D.C. area non-profit aimed at housing, clothing and feeding our nation’s homeless female veterans and their families.

But what drove Boothe—who has a family of her own—to donate so much of her personal time? Kinship. Duty. And one last thing: She’s experienced homelessness firsthand.

 

Finding a Family

Boothe’s military dreams started small. She grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the south side of Chicago. Life was tough. “When you’re young, you don’t know that’s the bad part. You don’t know that you’re in poverty,” she says.

Although she doesn’t like to talk much about her upbringing, one pleasant memory she recalls is listening to her uncle’s military stories. “He would always tell us about serving and his friends and how it’s like family,” says Boothe. “I had always said that I wanted to create a tradition of service in my family,” she says.

And like her uncle before her, she wanted to leave a lasting impression with her family’s next generation. “I wanted something positive so my children and my grandchildren could talk about.”

But first, she had some other dreams to pursue. In 1999, she moved to Las Vegas to pursue a degree in television and broadcast with an emphasis in sports journalism. “I played four years of college basketball, so I did a lot of sports reporting,” says Boothe.

But after she graduated, she hit a snag. “I was told I was taller than most anchormen and women … so there went my four years of college education.” Undeterred, Boothe fell back on her dream of joining the military.

With her degree, she could have joined the Army Reserves as an officer, but took a different approach instead. “I wanted to enlist first. I think you need to be able to follow before you can lead.” 

After a short stint working at a unit in St. Louis, Mo., she accepted a full-time position in New Orleans and moved with her son in 2005. Soon after, she received orders to begin training for deployment. She was headed to Iraq.

“I don’t think I had been there even six months before I got called up, but ironically since I was full-time civilian support staff, they had told me that I didn’t have to deploy because they needed civilians to stabilize the units.”

Instead of staying behind, Boothe opted to deploy anyway. “Nobody wants to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I raised my right hand. I gave my obligation,” she says.

But the greatest challenge on her horizon wasn’t a war, at least not one fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unbeknownst to her, Boothe was about to embark on the most harrowing experience of her life.

 

The Storm Approaches

During deployment training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Boothe noticed she became fatigued easily, an unusual feeling for a former college athlete. “I can’t really pinpoint what it was, but I just didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t have any energy,” she says.

She’d find herself worn out during simple exercises. Stranger still, her neck and jaw hurt more and more with each day. Despite her difficulties, her superiors wouldn’t let her see the medic for fear she was trying to leave her post, and for good reason.

The war against terrorism was ramping up, and plenty of rookie soldiers were spooked about the new trend of IED injuries and deaths. “People were doing all kinds of things to get out of deployment,” she says. “And they thought that I was trying to get out.”

Even though Boothe volunteered to fight when she didn’t have to, it didn’t matter much to the officers in charge. “They didn’t know what your story is, they just see a uniform,” she says. 

To make matters worse, on a seemingly normal day in August, Boothe received word from a soldier that something happened to her home—a hurricane had hit New Orleans. “If you’re from that area, you get [storm] systems through there all the time, so I’m thinking it’s not a big deal.”

What she expected was the normal aftermath of a tropical storm; minor flooding and light-to-moderate damage. But as soon as she turned on the television, it was far worse than she had imagined. A hurricane—Katrina—had nearly wiped the city off the map, and with it, her home.

“Once I was able to get to a TV, that’s when I saw that New Orleans had been devastated by the hurricane … and my son and I had just lost everything that we own.” Despite the widespread damage, the army gave Boothe just two weeks to get her life in order.

She chose not to go back to sift through the wreckage. “I didn’t have anything to salvage, so I was like, OK, this would be a great time for me to go see the doctor.”

After hearing her concerns about the fatigue and jaw pain, the physician biopsied a few tissue samples from the area and ran some blood work. After two weeks, they asked Boothe to come in and get her results. When she arrived at the doctor’s office, she found the unit’s Colonel waiting for her.

“He said, lieutenant, you need to sit down … the tissue from inside of your jaw was malignant.” Boothe, a non-smoker, had cancer—specifically adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare, aggressive malignancy of the head and neck. At first, Boothe says she denied it.

But as she sat in that chair, she came to a frightening realization: Her life was different from here on out, and her military career, the career she worked so hard for, was in jeopardy, and her life was in freefall.

 

Jaspen Boothe of Final Salute, Inc.
Boothe with the youngest son and daughter of one of the deployed women whom Jaspen is caring for. Photo by Aaron Spicer

Dark Days

Immediately following her diagnosis, Boothe was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to begin a grueling, six-month round of surgery and radiation treatments.

For the first time in her life, Boothe found herself completely stuck. “The first week that I was there, I was very angry and rude to everybody. I was pissed.”

One day, she locked herself out of her room and had to walk through the hospital to get the key. As if by fate, she passed through a room full of wounded veterans.

Some were missing limbs. Others, burned unrecognizably. For Boothe, it was a wakeup call to improve her attitude. “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘This is your last day of complaining, because they’d trade places with you in a heartbeat.’” 

Over the next few months, she divided her time between receiving radiation therapy and battling the symptoms that came along with it.

“It was very hard to get treatment alone,” she says. Despite her condition, Boothe would fly back to Missouri for job interviews between treatments, not because she was eager to get back to work, but because, as a single mom, she had nowhere to take her son after her stay in the hospital.

“I didn’t have a post to go back to. I was basically homeless. The hospital was where I lived,” she says. She even asked the military for help, only to be turned away. “I was asking for resources for female veterans and veterans with children, and [they] said, well … the military doesn’t help you anymore, so you have to go to the [U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs].”

But like the military, the VA was of little help to Boothe and her son. “All the programs were basically male-based. They sent me to social services, basically the welfare office.” So, that’s where she went, an experience Boothe describes as “the most demeaning experience I’ve ever had.”

Even after years of service in the army, the former lieutenant faced the cynicism and bureaucratic obstacles that millions of low-income Americans deal with every day. “You’re treated as a crackhead, or a woman with a bunch of illegitimate children,” says Boothe.

And despite enduring the runaround, she still only came away with an offer of $350 a month between food stamps and cash benefits, far less than it took to feed, clothe and house herself, let alone her son.

“It was a huge slap in the face, because after serving my country, all my country has offered me in return is poverty.” Faced with homelessness and poverty, Boothe got the last-minute call she hoped for—the Reserve found a job for her back in Missouri.

But even as her nightmare faded, Boothe was left with one burning question: Why couldn’t she get the help she so desperately needed? Why was it so easy to slip between the cracks? Her search for answers would lead her to make one of the most important decisions of her life.

 

The Invisible Homeless

A year passed. Boothe found another job with the Reserve, this time in Washington D.C. After trudging through hell, Boothe thought maybe her situation had just been a fluke.

“I had always assumed I was an isolated case, because you had never heard of a homeless woman veteran, especially with little children,” she says. But the more she researched the issue, the more she realized she was part of a growing problem. “At that particular time, I had started to look around in 2009 and 2010, there were around 13,000 homeless woman veterans.”

And with the conflicts in the Middle East winding down, the number of female veterans without homes was growing steadily, making it one of the fastest growing homeless populations in the country—the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that between 37,030 and 58,800 women veterans are homeless each year.

“IEDs don’t care what are genders are, but somehow America does, which is shown by the lack of services for women veterans and their children,” she says. Armed with that knowledge, she knew she had to do something. And being in the heart of the country’s political machine, Boothe knew that something was to found a non-profit organization.

In 2010, she started Final Salute Inc. with the purpose of providing the services she lacked as a homeless female veteran. Right away, Boothe ran into obstacles, but not in the form of finding women to help or filling out IRS paperwork. The hardest part was getting the public to overcome stereotypes and pay attention to the real problem at hand.

“If you’re a homeless male veteran, [people think] it’s because the country failed you … but if you’re a woman, it’s like, what did you do to get yourself in that situation?” While a male veteran without a home might sleep on the street or in a car, Boothe says homeless women—often faced with a higher risk of being abused—are more apt to stay hidden in hopeless situations.

“[They] may move from house to house, so not in shelters. A woman’s not going to sleep under a bridge or in the woods.” To combat this, Final Salute Inc. gives homeless women and their families a place to stay, food to eat and clothes to wear with little or no questions asked for up to two years at transitional homes in Fairfax, Alexandria and Ohio.

Still, it’s not enough to meet the country’s growing demand for social services. “We’re usually full. When someone leaves, there’s usually someone else there a few days later,” says Boothe. Still, it’s needed help, and the women need it. But what kind of women need the help? What does the face of female veteran homelessness really look like?

 

Sisters in Struggle

In Alexandria, Final Salute Inc.’s Resident Assistant Mary Curry makes sure things run smoothly. The home is well-furnished with everything one might need: private bedrooms, a full kitchen, even a balcony.

As a retired veteran, Curry knows how hard it can be when transitioning from military to civilian life. “Anybody that served this country could wake up tomorrow and find themselves in a homeless situation,” she says. Of all the residents that live there, Kathryn Hutchins might know that lesson the best.

After 20 years serving in the Navy, all it took was a graphic design company to run aground and a boutique shop to close to land her in a homeless situation. “I lost everything … but it is what it is,” she says. Or take the case of Chiquita Peña, a reservist who came to the home March last year with her young daughter.

After her husband—who works in security—injured his leg, she stepped up to become the family’s sole breadwinner while he recovered. But after lining up several promising leads, the Reserves sent her to California for three weeks on assignment. “I was told, no, you can’t go to these job interviews,” says Peña.

Like that, her opportunities vanished, and like so many women in her situation, she wound up unable to work, unable to provide. Stories like these are exactly why Final Salute Inc. exists—to give these perfectly employable female veterans the fair shot that society might not have. “You’re just one person against the world,” says Boothe. And despite its failings, Boothe believes society will have to be the saving grace for these women.

 

Where the Burden Lies

A stranger approaches a veteran and shakes their hand. “Good job,” the well-wisher might say. “Thanks for serving our country.” But to Boothe and the women she serves, this well-intentioned gesture falls flat.

“When people shake your hand, it’s like they’re washing their hands … like they have no further responsibility.” It’s not that they don’t appreciate the compliment—they do. The problem is, it’s not enough to actually help anyone. “’Thank you’ doesn’t stop a suicide. It’s not taking a homeless veteran off the street. It’s not getting them a job,” says Boothe.

She says the brunt of the load should be carried not by organizations like hers, but by the government—and by people like you and me. She questions why a public so concerned with earthquakes in Haiti and typhoons in the Philippines could be so ignorant of pressing issues happening all the time at home.

“If every American gave a dollar, that’s a lot of money that would help,” she says. And although she’s happy providing support for female veterans now, she hopes that there’s a better solution on the horizon.

“I didn’t create Final Salute for longevity. If I’m still doing this 20 or 30 years down the road, America has failed as a system,” she says. Still, to the women in transition, Final Salute Inc. provides the hope, strength and courage to face the world again.

(February 2014)

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