Novelist Ray Bradbury once advised that to accomplish something big, you first have to jump off a cliff, then build wings on the way down.
The visionaries who want to house the homeless on the grounds of the Washington Soldiers Home have adopted a bit of Bradbury’s philosophy.
Ray Switzer, a former program manager at the state Department of Veterans Affairs, noticed the Betsy Ross building on the Orting campus sat empty. Switzer, now a manager at the WestCare Foundation, saw it as a potential solution for homeless female veterans and raised federal, state and local dollars to fix it up.
The former nurses dormitory can house 11 women. As Switzer told The News Tribune, the beds are made and the paint is fresh; all they need now is money to start operating.
Hence, the leap of faith: No federal dollars have been secured for ongoing operations.
What they do have is strong support from new Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
The County Council has yet to adopt Dammeier’s $250,000 pledge to the female veterans shelter, which is part of his proposed $8 million dollar supplemental budget for behavioral health. But it should.
Call it a piece of redemption for council members who left a canyon-size gap in local mental health funding. In December, the council narrowly voted down a sales-tax increase for direly needed mental health and chemical dependency services.
Dammeier wants to send a clear message to the nearly 90,000 veterans living in Pierce County that they are a priority. That includes those who’ve fallen on hard times.
A semi-rural community like Orting may seem an odd place for homeless female veterans whose ages would range from 25 to 70. There are no public bus lines, and few of the jobs and social services that generally lead to homeless shelters being placed in urban areas.
But Orting has been hospitable to vets since 1891, and there’s no sign it plans to stop now. (Perhaps it can offset the negative reputation for homeless care that has stuck to its northern valley neighbor, Puyallup.)
For the homeless women who would call Orting home, transportation to clinical services through the VA would be provided, in addition to an in-house case manager to address issues such as poverty, poor family dynamics and chemical dependency.
Switzer expects many female veterans may have varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD afflicts both genders, but symptoms often present differently in women. Men tend to abuse alcohol or drugs. Women tend to get anxious and depressed; they’re also more likely to suffer sexual assault and blame themselves.
A recent study commissioned by the VA shows that 52 percent of female veterans need mental health care, but less than half receive it. The study also showed that women who serve in combat are three times more likely than non-veterans to become homeless.
For female vets, a skewed perception of personal safety and comfort in behavioral health facilities and the perceived stigma associated with seeking mental health services are often obstacles to finding treatment and permanent housing.
Lest we forget the unmet needs of male homeless veterans, Dammeier made a separate $500,000 request to renovate the Roosevelt Barracks at the Soldiers Home. If approved, as many as 40 men could live there.
The Orting campus is also the focus of a $3.8 million proposal by nonprofit groups to build a village of free-standing cottages for chronically homeless adults in the next few years, modeled on the nationally renowned Quixote Village in Olympia.
A concerted effort would be made to place veterans there, which makes sense, given the Soldiers Home mission to serve honorably discharged service members, spouses and widows.
It’s too soon to predict whether all these various plans will come together. The Soldiers Home campus is understandably unsettled after last week’s news that the state had cited the nursing facility for inadequate care and fired two administrators.
But the repurposing of the Betsy Ross building seems like a manageable first step.
Let’s repay part of the debt owed to our women in uniform. Female veterans who are hurting deserve stability, a sense of belonging and a chance to build some wings of their own.