Homeless women veterans find a home in Coatesville

    Jamie Breen didn’t really have any plans after high school graduation in Willingboro, New Jersey.  So it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when she signed up for the Air Force, shipped out for basic training, and inevitably was sent to Iraq. Breen remembered the advice her father gave her. 

    “He said, you gotta do what you gotta do, Jame,” said Breen. “You know you signed that piece of paper and you promised you would do anything for your country. So, that’s what I had to do.” Breen was stationed in Baghdad. She worked in a post office doing secretarial work until she fell off a mail truck. She broke her arm, injured her back, and had a concussion. She was sent back to the states to heal.  “I felt like a little kid again,” Breen said. “My mom had to wash my hair for me because I couldn’t do any of that stuff for myself.” After physical therapy, Breen had largely recovered. But not fast enough for the medical examination board. They discharged her with a ten percent disability rating and $10,000 in severance pay. “I went cha-ching,” said Breen. “I started drinking and going out every night and partying and doing drugs. At first it as like I was hanging out with old friends that hadn’t seen me in a long time. Then it started that I didn’t even want to hang out with them. I would just sit in my room at my dad’s house in the basement and drink like a bottle of vodka myself.” She was drunk, day and night. “I would use it to try to cope with the pain,” Breen said. “I had some friends that got hurt and I had some friends that were killed. And it was really horrible to see.”

    The memories kept her awake. She’d get tired, and instead of resting, she’d use cocaine. 

    Breen said her dad was starting to catch on. “I think he could tell. He was a police officer, a narcotics officer, so I think he had the idea that something was going on. But because I was his daughter he didn’t want to say it out loud. Because it might be true.” It wasn’t long before she was arrested for drunken driving. She hit a car at a stoplight in South Philly and took off. Police followed her. She didn’t stop until they drew their guns. Breen was high, drunk, and in a jail cell. It was Veteran’s day, 2009. …This isn’t an unusual story to Marsha Four.  She’s the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Veteran Multi-Service and Education Center, and says women back from war find themselves in tenuous positions.

    “Top that with no jobs, top that with possible substance abuse problems, issues with unstable mental health–it all lends itself to the perfect storm,” said Four. “Families sometimes will keep their female children in the home setting more than they will their male children. Part of that is just in our culture–we think think that women need to be protected longer. But eventually they do hit the bottom, burn a lot of bridges, and their families decide that they just can’t work with them any longer.” So, they end up homeless. Four, a Vietnam veteran, knew that as more women enlisted in the military, the problem would only grow as they got out. In 2005, she opened a shelter exclusively for homeless women veterans. “The biggest challenge was making it feel a little homey,” said Four.  “Not institutional. So we have little lace curtains on windows here and there and we have a little wall paper in the lobby.” And that’s where Jamie Breen is today.

    The Mary E. Walker House is located on the Coatesville Veterans Affiars Medical Center campus in Coatesville, Pa. It has 30 beds and a near-constant waiting list. Eighty to 90 percent of the women here have drug and alcohol addiction issues.”Everybody up here is a veteran so we all know what we went through. We have that bond,” said Breen. “Some of the ladies are my good friends and they’re, like, as old as my mom.”At 24, Breen is the youngest in the house. She’s been here a month. As a resident of the house, Breen attends Narcotic and Alcohol Anonymous meetings, takes classes in finance, life skills, and nutrition. She’s in a compensated work therapy program–usually washing dishes in the kitchen–and saving her money for when she’s out on her own. Which could be awhile. She can stay here for up to two years. And Breen, like the other women in the house, gets to decide when she’s ready to leave. “That’s the question for them,” said Four. “What’s the definition of success for you here and have you obtained it? They get to decide that.”For now, Jamie Breen just wants to work the program and stay sober. And be that way this year on Veteran’s Day.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal