Inside The Play Giving Voice To Homeless Female Veterans

By Jessie Fetterling

The statistics surrounding homeless female veterans are dire — and only getting more so. The population’s number doubled from 2006 to 2010, and is expected to grow further as increasing numbers of military women integrate back into society following service, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Veterans with PTSD and other mental health disorders make up about 80% of the homeless veteran population, and women who experience military sexual trauma are nine times more at risk for PTSD.

Not surprisingly, women service members, who constitute only 14.6% of the military, account for more than 95% of reported sex crimes in the military. And those who suffer personal violence such as rape are 6.5 times more likely to experience homelessness, especially if they have PTSD.

These cold, hard numbers shed light on an issue that demands far more national attention. But they don’t tell the whole story. To reveal the human narratives behind the statistics, playwright Robin Bradford has interviewed four homeless female veterans in Los Angeles and turned their stories into a play, Low Hanging Fruit.

Making its debut in Los Angeles in 2014, Low Hanging Fruit has had subsequent productions in Michigan, North Carolina, and most recently in San Francisco. Here, Robin discusses the play and the female characters she created in hopes of raising awareness about what happens to females who serve our country when they return home.

Jessie Fetterling: 3Girls Theatre Company, which produced the play in San Francisco, produces plays only written by women. Is there a specific reason you chose to work with them as opposed to others?

Robin Bradford: I really respect the work that 3Girls does. I find it shocking and sad that less than 20% of [theatrical] works that are produced are written by women. When you go to a theatrical production, usually about 70% of people in the audience are women, so it’s weird that artistic directors gravitate toward the work of men. There’s no reason for that. Are men intrinsically better writers? I don’t think so; I think it’s gender bias. I want to support work done by women and theater companies run by women, and being in 3Girls is a way to do that directly.

Jessie: Why did you choose to focus on specifically female homeless veterans as opposed to all homeless veterans (including males)?

Robin: I found it shocking that there were women veterans on the street. I don’t know why women would be exempt from that, and the more I researched, I found it’s almost a forgone conclusion that women would be on the street. It’s not just PTSD, but [the fact that] women so frequently are victims of military sexual trauma. It was a matter of wanting to shed some light on the topic. I was surprised, and everyone I’ve talked to has been surprised as well. I think we think of homeless vets as guys, and your mind doesn’t go to women on the street.

The larger question or issue is how we as human beings categorize people . . . We do an assessment that’s subconscious within seconds. Whether you hire someone or not is usually decided within the first five minutes. It’s this whole question of whether to run toward this person or away from this person. It seems like we should have more consciousness about how we deal with our fellow human beings. I think for homeless people, especially, it’s very easy to walk past them and be judgmental without even realizing you’re doing it. You really don’t know what this person’s story is. Just by being alive, this person may have already pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. That’s what this play is about, is to try and open people’s eyes a little bit.

(L to R): Heather Gordon (Cory), Cat Brooks (Yolanda), and Livia Demarchi (Maya)
(L to R): Heather Gordon (Cory), Cat Brooks (Yolanda), and Livia Demarchi (Maya)

Jessie: What have you learned in your research about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that made you paint them in a negative light in the play?

Robin: They were [painted in a negative light], but I tried to be fair. I had the character of Maya going to the VA because she believes they’re doing something right. She’s the one person in the play who kept as closely as possible to herself, and she articulated the things she was going through instead of just numbing herself with drugs and alcohol. To have that character willing to work with the VA was a positive outcome in terms of the VA being a part of this play.

I also think that there are really good people over there. It’s a huge bureaucracy; it’s a labyrinth of red tape, and it’s well documented that veterans have a next-to-impossible time getting their benefits and even getting health care. And then you combine that with people who are somewhat health-rejecting because they can’t take more bureaucracy; they’ve already lived through that without good outcomes. The VA does good outreach and they try, but they don’t have the staff and personnel to keep at it. If you go to other homeless advocacies, they have people checking in on someone a couple times a month before finally building enough trust for that person to come in for a cup of coffee. The VA is focusing on trying to give programs to people who come to them. It’s difficult for them to be all things to all people, and if you add in that health-rejecting element, it’s tough.

I did try to have it come across as a complex issue. It is from the perspective of these women, so their view is that the VA isn’t helpful. The reality is the VA can’t force someone to come in. The interesting thing that didn’t come out in the play is that a lot of women don’t even apply for benefits because they don’t think they’re entitled. They think that because they didn’t get wounded or didn’t go into combat, they don’t deserve those benefits, and that’s just not true.

Jessie: How did you visit war veterans and initiate conversations? Did you remain in contact with the women you met?

Robin: I met somebody in Los Angeles who has an advocacy group that is sort of like a day shelter, and he introduced me to people. Without that, I don’t think they would have trusted me. A couple of them I’m kind of in contact with, but they don’t have telephones or computers. Everyone has my contact information, and every once in awhile I’ll hear from someone.

Jessie: What was your key reasoning for having the poetic interludes from Maya?

Robin: For me, Maya is the one that hasn’t lost herself completely. Her reasons for being on the street are much more profound — her father committed suicide and she’s been so traumatized that she’s willing to walk away from a newborn baby. I saw her as a different sort of person. I liked the idea of having someone who’s in her head a lot. Her poetry is how she works things through; she’s not terribly conversational otherwise.

Jessie: Why did you decide to integrate songs from the 1960s and ’70s into the play?

Robin: Those songs were around during Vietnam, and I feel like Vietnam is still ghosting us in a very profound way. That’s another theme is that the more things change, the more things stay the same. This whole thing about shell shock and PTSD is all the same, but it just has different words to describe it through every war that we’ve ever had. And why don’t we learn? It’s just the same old bullshit over and over again. [The music] was used to really drive the point home that all this talk in the ’60s and ’70s about change really didn’t happen, and my feeling is that it’s just going to keep not happening.

Jessie: What is your main goal in writing this play?

Robin: My personal reason was very simple and was just to try and raise awareness and try to point out that people are not the same. We can’t put them into convenient little categories in our mind. Everyone’s different. That person you [see on the streets] has a story worth telling. I’m not conceited enough to think it’s actually going to change things, but it might have a ripple effect for some people.

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