Former sailor on the frontlines against veteran homelessness

NORWALK − Hope Garcia proudly served in the U.S. Navy for 11 years, but after an accident left her disabled in 2014, the 32-year-old decided to trade in her military boots for a pageant dress and high heels. Ms. Veteran America is a beauty and talent competition for former and current female soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors who not only strut their stuff on stage, but also advocate awareness for homeless veteran women.

This year, Garcia is a contestant, and she’s determined to score a win for women living a life she knows all too well.

“I was homeless when I was a teen after an abusive relationship that led to me getting pregnant,” said Garcia, who now attends Cerritos College and serves as student commissioner of convocation and fine arts.

Garcia spent 46 months homeless, in and out group homes near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The experience led to a traumatic miscarriage and ended when Garcia moved in with her grandmother. In 2003, she joined the U.S. Navy.

“This is why I’m such a strong advocate for homeless veteran women,” she said. “These are the problems that hinder us. I’m hoping people realize the need and donate -- $25 gets a woman off the street for a night. Every dollar counts.”

Final Salute Inc. would agree. Founded in 2010 by a female veteran, the non-profit organization strives to eliminate homelessness among women vets by offering housing and other supportive services.

All proceeds raised by the contestants of Ms. Veteran America go to the organization, which estimates that there are currently 55,000 homeless women veterans in the U.S. today.

According to Final Salute Inc., the main causes for veteran homelessness among women are unemployment, legal troubles, lack of veteran benefits, military sexual trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), divorce, disabilities, and substance abuse.

Although Garcia was placed on permanent disability in 2014 after a motorcycle accident, the married mother of two is not letting that stop her from raising $5,000 by May 30 for these women in need.

“I can’t get a job [anymore], I’m 100 percent disabled, but I’m good at helping other people,” Garcia said. “Raising money would be a first step...because I never want to see [female veterans] on the streets.”

If Garcia can raise the most funds in the western United States, she is guaranteed a spot in the national competition on Oct. 11 in Las Vegas.

So far, she’s received donations from several Cerritos College board trustees, Soroptimist International of Norwalk, and friends via a CrowdRise account that allows supporters to donate funds online. At last check, Garcia’s total was nearly $2,300, but she said she won’t be satisfied until comprehensive change occurs.

“Women veterans are being overlooked, undervalued and looked down on. No one is there to help them,” said Garcia. “Final Salute is being that Band-Aid until the system can be fixed and the government realizes that women need to be completely covered when they get out of the service.”

To learn more about Garcia’s campaign or donate funds, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/MVA2015HOPEG.