Media and Politics

A New Bill in Congress Would Make Mobile Home Loans Even More Predatory

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would allow employees at manufactured home retailers—who sell houses often called “mobile homes” or “trailers”—to steer customers towards specific loan choices. The Senate Banking Committee will vote on a similar proposal on December 5.

It’s a wonky bill, and it’s flown under the radar so far. But—particularly given the political war being waged at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—it shouldn’t get buried. More than 1 in 10 homes in rural or small-town America were built in a factory, and they are usually owned by older, poorer Americans. Even though the average sale price for a new manufactured home is $68,000, consumers who take out a loan to buy one typically pay high interest rates and fees that can add hundreds of dollars to their monthly housing payment.

Proponents of the new legislation argue that this change will allow salespeople to help consumers find financing more quickly. However, it also creates a powerful incentive for retailers to drive consumers toward the loans that are most profitable for the business—even when there are less expensive options available for the consumer.

Carla Burr, who owns her home in Chantilly, Virginia, was surprised by the interest rate she was offered after she sold her condominium to purchase a manufactured home in 2004. She had good credit and could make a sizeable down payment—she had just netted more than $100,000 from the sale of her condo. But lenders were asking her to pay an interest rate greater than 10 percent for a 20-year mortgage, more than double what she paid on the mortgage for her previous home. “It’s as if they are treating manufactured homeowners as if we were substandard, or uneducated,” Burr said. Today, even though mortgage interest rates are generally lower than they were 13 years ago, manufactured housing consumers like Burr are still being charged high rates.

About 70 percent of mortgages for manufactured homes are already higher-priced mortgage loans Higher-priced mortgage loans have interest rates and fees (APR) above the standard rate (APOR) by 1.5 or more percentage points. , compared with only 3 percent of mortgages for site-built homes. That’s due, at least in part, to the lack of competition within the manufactured housing industry. Companies affiliated with a single large corporation, Clayton Homes, were responsible for 38 percent of manufactured housing loans in 2016 and for more than 70 percent of loans made to African American buyers in 2014. That leaves companies with little need to lower their rates to attract consumers—and that would be especially true if there was a steady stream of referrals from affiliated retail shops.

Lenders were asking her to pay more than double the interest rate she paid on her previous home

Clayton Homes is also the largest producer of manufactured homes and sells these homes through 1,600 retailers. That gives the company thousands of opportunities to solicit customers for loans offered by its mortgage lending affiliates, 21st Mortgage and Vanderbilt Mortgage, which make far more loans each year than any other lenders. They also charge consumers higher interest rates than much of their competition.

In Virginia, for instance, this company’s interest rates for higher-priced loans averaged 6.1 percentage points above a typical mortgage loan, whereas interest rates charged for similar loans by the rest of the industry in the commonwealth averaged 3.9 percentage points above a typical loan. For a Virginian taking out an average-size loan from a lender affiliated with Clayton Homes, this means they could pay about $75 more each month and about $18,000 more over the life of a 20-year loan than if they had gotten a mortgage elsewhere. Since owners of manufactured homes in Virginia earn about $40,000 each year—about half the annual income of other homeowners in the commonwealth—these additional payments can be a significant financial strain.

Interest rates aren’t the only thing on the line. The House bill under consideration would also allow lenders to include higher up-front fees, prepayment penalties, balloon payments, and hefty late fees on higher-interest loans, leaving many manufactured housing buyers with expensive loans that are difficult to pay off. Manufactured housing industry lobbyists claim that regulations preventing these practices have made it more expensive to do business and, as a result, consumers can’t get loans to buy manufactured homes. However, Center for American Progress analysis shows that 2015 loan volumes were fairly similar to the volumes before the regulation went into effect; the biggest difference is that fewer consumers received loans with exorbitant rates and risky terms. Last year, there was a modest 5 percent decrease in the number of loans originated, but lending quality remained stronger.

If Congress is serious about giving consumers more borrowing choices, more high-quality lenders need to offer mortgage loans for manufactured housing. However, by giving further advantage to today’s largest providers, these bills could derail efforts to expand financing options available for consumers. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and state housing finance agencies are taking steps to make it easier for lenders to offer mortgages for manufactured homes. For instance, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have committed to buying more manufactured housing loans from banks, which should encourage more lending. They are also launching pilots to buy manufactured housing loans titled as chattel, which represent the majority of manufactured housing lending. Allowing the largest manufactured housing companies today to tighten their grip on consumers could put newer lenders, who do not have salespeople at retailers promoting their offerings, at a disadvantage.

Consumers of manufactured housing deserve the same rights and protections available to those buying site-built homes. And since families that live in manufactured housing are more likely to be teetering on the edge of financial stability, they are the least well-positioned to shoulder additional burdens. Congress should take further steps to expand options for these consumers, not pave the way for more abuses.

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Media and Politics

This Republican State Senator is Trying to Clean Up the Failed Kansas Tax Experiment

We all know the story by now. In 2012, with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback at the helm, Kansas enacted massive state-wide tax cuts. Proponents of supply-side economics insisted that these tax cuts would not only pay for themselves, but would also spur massive economic growth in the state. Brownback said the tax cuts would be “a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” He promised that they’d boost investment and increase employment; and he swore they’d “directly benefit our schools and local governments.”

Instead, over the next few years, the tax cuts wrought havoc on the state’s economy and funding for schools, health care, and other priorities. The state’s economy slowed down, their credit rating was reduced, and job creation underperformed nearly every neighboring state as well as the national average. Now, Despite Governor Brownback’s failed “real-life experiment” and dire warnings from Kansas legislators, Congressional Republicans are planning to apply an eerily similar proposal nationwide.

Jeremy spoke with Kansas State Sen. Dinah Sykes, a lifelong Republican who successfully ran for the Kansas Senate on a platform of repealing Gov. Brownback’s tax cuts after seeing what happened to her kids’ public schools.

Jeremy Slevin: So, you are a Republican—you voted for Sam Brownback when he first ran for governor, but you ended up running for your seat on a slightly different platform. Do you want to talk about how you got involved in running for office?

Sen. Dinah Sykes: I was involved in my children’s school as PTA president, and I started seeing the PTA foot the bill for a lot of things. Helping more with field trips, buying books for the library, and things like that. The classes were getting larger so it made me start asking more questions—going to school board meetings, talking to my representative. I realized that it was more of a state issue with the way that the funds were coming in, so I got involved.

Regardless of whether you agree with someone or not, you should be able to have a dialogue with them.

At the time I lived in a different section of Kansas, and when I moved just a few miles it changed my representative and my senator. I tried to open a dialogue with them as well, but I was not listened to because I had a different opinion from them. Before, I was able to talk to my Republican representative—regardless of whether you agree with someone or not, you should be able to have a dialogue with them. So, I was frustrated trying to figure out what to do next. I didn’t know if I should try to find a good candidate to get behind or start with the school board or what, and doors seemed to open and open and so I finally decided to run for the Senate seat.

JS: And at some point, Gov. Brownback and the legislators passed major tax cuts for businesses and a lot of wealthy folks in the state. How did that play a role in the schools and your decision to run?

DS: In 2012, the tax plan created a loophole for businesses so that if they were an LLC, they were not taxed on pass-through income. We also had three tax brackets and we went down to two.

It did not work. We had nine rounds of budget cuts. Borrowed $2 billion from our highway fund. Now I’m all for bonding that money when it’s building infrastructure, but that’s not what it was used for. It was there to bridge the gap and to try to do a sales tax increase. Meanwhile, class sizes were large and my school had not bought library books for five years. And we were seeing that the core function of government was not able to work properly.

JS: Was it tough to challenge someone in your own party?

DS: Yeah it was challenging, and you’re going against an incumbent that’s sitting on a pot of money. For me, someone who is new to this, I was just making sure I built those relationships with local leaders and my chambers of commerce, and talked to my neighbors. It really was a grassroots thing, trying to get the everyday Kansan more involved.

I think honestly that the everyday Kansan and the everyday American want people to work together. And it’s not, “I have this great idea and everyone needs to come on board with me,” it’s, “How do we work together?” and “I have this point of view and you have a different point of view and how do we come together and compromise?” Compromise has become such a negative word in politics, but that is how good policy is made.

JS: The reason we are talking about this today is that the Trump administration and some Republicans in Congress are considering similar legislation that goes a step further from what Kansas does. What words of wisdom would you give to your colleagues in Washington who are considering this tax bill?

DS: There are differences between the federal plan and Kansas plan. When the Kansas plan was first brought on the Senate floor, the plan had pay-fors in it, and I’m seeing some of that with the federal plan. But my biggest caution is to let the process work properly. Work both sides of the aisle, come together, have the committee sessions where you vet things. Don’t look for just the dynamic scoring Dynamic scoring analyzes the bugetary impact of major legislation under different possible economic outcomes. or whatever that’s just going to paint your picture. Look at both sides and have those conversations. At the end of the day, make the hard choice and look at what is really in the best interest of our people.

Compromise has become such a negative word in politics, but that is how good policy is made.

JS: Are you worried that, similarly to how Kansas faced budget cuts following the tax cuts, the same thing could happen at the federal level? I think currently the federal bill costs about $1.5 trillion, not factoring in dynamic scoring as you mentioned.

DS: It is a concern, and I am going to try to stay optimistic and have faith that as more and more people are coming out and wanting to pass good tax reform, that we don’t short-change the process. That we do look at all sides and come up with a good plan.

JS: And going to back to what happened in Kansas, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We should mention that after you got elected you guys went about repealing some of these tax cuts.

DS: Yes, in the end of our session we did pass a bipartisan bill. That took us back, it got rid of the loophole for LLCs, so businesses are back on the tax roll. It increased income rates for all Kansans and we added back in the third tier on our tax plan. It was painful and a lot of compromise. Like I said, I think that’s when you make good policy: When you work together, both parties. We were writing on a white board, “What are things you want to see?” “How do we establish this?”

And at the end of the day we had to come up with an override because our governor did veto it. But we had conservatives with roles as well as moderates, and we all came together and passed the plan.

JS: And how has that affected the budget cuts? Have you seen a return to funding in the schools or is that going to take some time?

DS: It will take some time. We did put more money in and we are still in litigation with the Supreme Court on our school funding. We were able to give pay raises to state employees who have not received pay raises in 8 to 10 years. We are seeing our revenues increase monthly, but you know it’s caution. And we didn’t get in the hole that we are in overnight and we are not going to get out of it overnight.

JS: Thank you so much, senator, we really appreciate you taking the time. Hopefully, members at the national level can learn some of the lessons from what happened in Kansas.

DS: Alright, thank you.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on November 10. It was edited for length and clarity.

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Media and Politics

The Quiet Attacks on Your Rights You Probably Haven’t Heard About

Last Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a plan to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. Their proposal would allow internet service providers to charge consumers more for higher streaming speeds or for access to certain websites, effectively opening a legal route to deny people access to a free and open internet based on their ability to pay. This came just a week after the FCC voted to roll back Lifeline, a program that helps low-income Americans pay for phone and broadband service.

The FCC’s actions are the latest in a year-long assault on low-income Americans. They come at a time when Senate Republicans are trying to pass a tax bill that would strip health coverage from 13 million Americans and eliminate dozens of federal programs that support low-income families—including protection for crime victims, food for the elderly, and affordable housing—to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

But those are just the headline battles. There is a quieter war being waged in the trenches: in state legislatures and federal courts, in congressional committees and governors’ mansions, and—as with the FCC’s recent decisions—in federal agencies.

Here’s a brief recap of what this war has looked like in just the past few months.

The administration is legalizing discrimination

While the ADA Education and Reform Act has been quietly making its way through Congress, threatening to undo decades of progress for people with disabilities, two separate agencies have undertaken actions of their own to repeal even more protections. The Department of Transportation yielded to pressure from airline industry lobbyists and delayed implementation of an Obama-era rule designed to prevent airports from routinely losing or breaking wheelchairs and other equipment that belongs to disabled passengers. And last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded 72 guidance documents that help schools enforce protections for students with disabilities. The revoked guidelines include a policy that helps students with disabilities get federal financial assistance and guidance for states on how to meet the needs of students with hearing loss.

The courts are chipping away at civil rights, too. Trump’s Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, could cast the deciding vote in a case from a business owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. If his appeal is successful, it could allow business owners to use their religious beliefs to deny service to customers on the basis of their sexual orientation, or even other protected identities such as race, religion, or national origin. This would hit low-income residents of rural communities particularly hard, who might not have other businesses they can turn to if they’re denied service (research shows they won’t).

Trump is also stacking lower courts with anti-worker judges: He appointed Thomas Farr, a lawyer who has defended voter suppression and built his career undermining workers’ rights, to a district court in North Carolina. Perhaps more frightening, he appointed Don Willett to the 5th Circuit—a pro-corporate judge who voted to give himself the authority to strike down regulations that “interfere with the free market.”

Federal agencies are chewing giant holes in the safety net

The Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging states to adopt work requirements for Medicaid, which would punish unemployed workers for not being able to find a job by taking away their health care. This continues the administration’s trend of using work requirements to gut safety net programs, after Trump’s presidential budget proposed work requirements to help pay for $193 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, FEMA was already coordinating the recovery, setting up supplies and personnel. But Trump’s administration was extremely slow to help citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, withholding aid until after the hurricanes made landfall. More than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to clean drinking water, more than half the territory doesn’t have access to electricity, and 60 percent of U.S. Virgin Islands residents are still without electricity. (If the House budget passes, things will only get worse: The budget cuts nearly $1 billion from disaster relief to help pay for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.)

The administration’s xenophobia is getting even worse

Months after the Trump administration ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), they denied a few thousand DACA renewal applications for being late, even though many of these applications were sitting in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services mailbox before the deadline passed. The administration also ended Temporary Protected Status for 60,000 Haitians and 2,500 Nicaraguans, forcing them to uproot their lives in America and return to regions that have been devastated by imperialist U.S. foreign policy.

And, as expected, Trump has ramped up deportations—even from the historic highs taking place during the Obama administration. The United States has deported 34 percent more immigrants so far this year than in the same period last year. For many immigrants fleeing violence and instability in Latin America, deportation means a return to poverty, or worse.

Jeff Sessions gets a section all to himself

Earlier this summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions strengthened the federal government’s ability to seize assets from people before bringing any criminal charges against them. In other words, this lets police officers take people’s money and property without due process. One more time: This lets police officers take people’s money and property without due process.

Sessions also declared that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act will no longer provide employment protection to transgender Americans, potentially allowing employers and insurers to deny coverage to a group that already experiences extremely high rates of poverty. This came after Sessions’ Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that Title VII also doesn’t cover sexual orientation—opening the door to more workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people. Other guidance from the DOJ on religious liberty could mean more discrimination in other areas of life as well, including discrimination in programs that low-income communities rely on for their health, safety, and security.

Culture

What the Final Moments of Homeless People Can Teach Us

The places where many chronically homeless people spend their final moments are somehow shocking in their banality. They are public spaces we pass on the way to somewhere else: a parking lot, a dirt path, an embankment behind a high school. These are the exact locations, respectively, of where Alberto Gonzalez, Kenneth Baker and Rachael Mae Lane (in full-term pregnancy), died in Orange County, California, in 2015 and 2016. (The photo above captures the place—Huntington Beach State Park—where 29-year-old Rafael Estrada Sanabria drowned in the Pacific last year with methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.)

Such ordinary places tell extraordinary stories of a health crisis and premature mortality amid surging death rates. In affluent Orange County, homeless deaths rose 74 percent in 2015 from the year before, reaching 188. Last year saw the toll rise to 201. Similarly, the homeless death count has risen in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and San Diego counties in recent years.

A significant contributor to the increase is drug overdose, which has replaced HIV as the primary homeless epidemic, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But another explanation is the historically unprecedented graying of our homeless population. Half of the nation’s chronically homeless are now over 50, and they suffer from accelerated aging—dying of ordinary conditions such as heart disease and cancer as many as 25 years earlier than the rest of us.

“Fifty is the new 75,” says Dr. Margot Kushel of the University of California, San Francisco, who studies homeless health and regularly treats middle-aged people for advanced geriatric illnesses.

With homeless life expectancy ranging between 42 and 52, and so many rounding this milestone, the time for meaningful intervention is fast disappearing. It’s thus more crucial than ever to shine a light on homeless people’s health, lack of medical care, and the circumstances of their deaths.

The following 10 images offer unusually intimate, eerie portraits of the places, though not necessarily the exact spots, where homeless people spent their final moments in Orange County in 2015 and 2016.

26

PEDRO SAJCHE CHAN, 31

He died after jumping from the First Street Bridge to the Santa Ana riverbed, a partially paved waterway connecting inland counties and the coast. Chan is one of eight people in 2015–2016 to die near the river, where the homeless population has mushroomed to as high as 500 people. Paul Leon, the CEO of the Illumination Foundation, a homeless assistance organization, remembers working the riverbed as a public health nurse more than a decade ago, when there were only a dozen people there. Now, Leon says, “You have a core of about 150 chronically homeless individuals. They’re the anchors.” Placing them in permanent housing will disperse the gatherings, he adds, and “the sooner you start that ball rolling, the better.”

 

3

JESSE CARRASCO, 54

He died in front of One Ice House in Santa Ana, a dry ice supplier. Carrasco was the victim of heart disease, though he also had a brain injury. He was one of the regulars who at the time slept along the business-lined street where his body was found. After his death, neighborhood workers paid tribute with candles and flowers. Sidewalks are among the everyday places in which chronically homeless people die—unlike the 80 percent of Americans who spend their final moments in hospitals and nursing homes. Other Orange County death sites in 2015 included a storm drain, a Taco Bell, the Pacific Ocean, a bus terminal, and motels. About a third of the deceased homeless people that year died in a medical facility.

 

4

RACHAEL MAE LANE, 33

She was discovered on an embankment behind San Clemente High School’s sports fields. Pregnant and at full-term, Lane died from complications of a ruptured uterus. “In the developed world? My goodness,” says Dr. Kushel. “Women dying of uterine rupture is pretty uncommon if they are getting regular health care. That’s one of the things that an OB-GYN would watch for.” Lane was originally from Appalachia, Virginia, which has a population of under 2,000. Her funeral home obituary says she was survived by three children but preceded in death by two. The infant discovered upon her death, Callie Victoria Snodgrass, was referred to in the obituary as Lane’s “unborn angel.”

 

5

LEROY JONES, 93

He was the oldest homeless person to die in Orange County in 2015, passing away in a Cypress motel from an enlarged heart and emphysema. Jones is an outlier among homeless people, whose life expectancy is far shorter than that of the general population. “Not a lot are making it past 65,” says Boston physician Travis Baggett, who treats homeless patients and researches their health. Those like Jones who live longer might offer clues to longevity for the rest of us. “The oldest homeless people are hardy survivors. They are special, different in some way.” It’s unclear if Jones’ emphysema was a result of smoking, though smoking is often a cause. Baggett calls tobacco the “overlooked addiction” among homeless people, who smoke at rates three times higher than the general population.

 

6

JERRY BODINE, 64

He died on a walkway in front of the First Methodist Church in Santa Ana, the victim of heroin and alprazolam intoxication, the latter drug often going by its brand name, Xanax, which is commonly used to treat anxiety. Medical trends across the general U.S. population, such as increased opioid abuse and reduced white male life expectancy, appeared first among homeless people, and studying death among the homeless can yield insights into the health trends of the population at large. “I have always considered the homeless to be canaries in the coal mine of public health,” explains the Boston physician Travis Baggett, who studies homeless health issues. “Life expectancy has gone down for white men for the first time ever. We saw that here. Drug overdose, we saw that here. You hold a magnifying glass up to a problem and see it earlier and more dramatically in the homeless population.”

 

7

DEREK PETER, 46

He committed suicide by hanging himself from the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, in late 2015. His former wife, Abigail Lanin Eaves, remembers him as a tormented man who began to show signs of being bipolar just after their honeymoon in 1996. They soon after separated and divorced, though in recent years he repeatedly tried to reconnect with her and their son on Facebook. Now the executive director of a birthing center in Albuquerque and a certified midwife, Eaves was making eggs one morning when she got a call originating in Southern California. “I had this odd feeling. As soon as [the caller] said she was from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, I said, ‘Oh God, Derek’s dead.’ She said, ‘How did you know?’”

 

8

JANELLE BIXLER-MAUCH, 56

She died on a bench in front of a Lake Forest laundromat; this photo shows the markings where the outside bench presumably stood before it was removed. Her cause of death was a blood clot. In an online tribute, a friend, Julie Glasser, wrote that Bixler-Mauch worked as a property manager for 20 years, had children and grandchildren, and possessed a feisty, lively nature as well as a love for her Catholic faith, her Chihuahua, and many interests, including crafts and tattoos. Glasser lamented her friend’s loss but said, “If I remove all the selfish thoughts I can say that I am happy that God had a better plan for you … You won’t suffer another day.”

 

9

ALBERTO GONZALEZ, 62

He died of coronary artery disease in front of the wall outside a Santa Ana mercado called Tia Market. A customer who stumbled onto Gonzalez that day ran into the store and alerted store employees, who then called 911. That wall had been a gathering place for homeless people because of a shade-bearing palm tree, which store owners had removed, leaving the stump still visible in the photo.

 

10

JONATHAN POWELL, 31

Powell was discovered next to a dumpster by a restaurant employee at Katie’s Munchies, having died from a heroin overdose in Westminster. Homeless people are known to sleep in the restaurant’s dumpster area, which is mostly enclosed by a cinder block partition. While older homeless people die of common natural ailments, “The 25- to 44-year-olds are being ravaged by drug overdose,” says Dr. Baggett.

 

11

KENNETH BAKER, 43

He was found in the bushes by a jogging trail in Newport Beach’s scenic Upper Newport Bay Nature Reserve, a quiet enclave surrounded by busy streets. Baker died of an infection of his heart valve. He also suffered from cellulitis in his toe, which is a painful bacterial infection that destroys tissue and is common among homeless people, among other foot disorders such as athletes’ foot, gangrene, trench foot, and unmended broken bones. Causes include diabetes, lack of hygiene, bad shoes, injuries, and constant walking or standing. A recent Canadian study showed that two-thirds of homeless people have foot problems at any one time.

This photo essay was produced with the support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was originally co-published with Capital & Main and O.C. WeeklyPhotos by Gema Galiana; text by Amy DePaul.

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Culture

‘My Son is Not a Personal Problem’: How Women Veterans Are Treated as Second-Class Citizens

Major Jas Boothe is strong. The first time I met her she scooped me up and carried me, like an old-timey groom walking their bride over the threshold. That’s a bold move with a new acquaintance, but she has plenty of reasons to be self-assured: She’s a veteran, a cancer survivor, and she raised her oldest son by herself, while she was homeless.

After she spent the mid-2000s struggling to navigate the Veterans Affairs (VA) system, and finding the resources for homeless women—and particularly mothers—lacking, Boothe founded Final Salute to support other veterans struggling to convince the military that their roles as mothers and as soldiers were inseparable.

I spoke with Major Boothe about her life and the maze of challenges that women veterans face as members of the military as well as caregivers in their own families.

Kate Bahn: Can you tell us a brief overview of what you and your family went through when you were in the army and immediately after?

Jas Boothe: Life was definitely harder as a single mother in the army because it was used as ammunition against me. Everyone knows their body, and when I got cancer, I knew something was wrong. But I was told, “This is why women can’t hack it in the military,” “This is why women shouldn’t be in leadership positions,” “If you are not here training with your troops you look weak, they’re not going to respect you.” So I just said, “You know what, fine, I won’t go check on myself.” The military tells you suck it up and drive on.

It turns out I was dying. I had head, neck, and throat cancer. Good thing I was able to get to the doctor before I deployed, because there’s no telling how much worse it would have gotten a year or so later. But it’s things like that that let you know that we still have a very long way to go.

I was told, ‘This is why women can’t hack it in the military.’

There were other instances. When my 6-month-old got sick—he was born with asthma—and the day care called me and said, “Hey, can you come get him?” I said, “Of course!” But my supervisor at the time was a man, and it took me so long to explain to him why I had to go. He said, “You know what? You need to keep your personal problems in order.” And I said, “My son is not a personal problem. He’s a baby and he’s sick.” I had to explain it in a different way for him. I said, “So you know when your children get sick, your wife goes and picks them up and alleviates that concern from you? I am the wife. So I have to go.”

By the time I got to my son, since it took me so long, he was already in the ambulance headed to the hospital, and I just felt so bad. Then when I got to the hospital my supervisor called me. I thought “Oh, he’s calling to check to see how my son is doing.” But he was calling me to ask if I was going to be at work the next day.

People look on the surface of things in the military, like post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that. But we still have underlying issues of how you’re treated strictly because of your gender.

KB: After your cancer diagnosis, how did you balance your own care needs with your caregiving needs for your son? How did you navigate the mix of supports for veterans, the social safety net, help from your family?

JB: Well, I had to suffer. The cancer and Hurricane Katrina left me homeless and jobless. At that point, I did need extensive rehabilitation and medical care, but I also had a child that I needed to take care of who needed food, clothes, a roof over his head. And I knew that if I focused on my health like I needed to, I wouldn’t be employable because I would have so much follow-up care and so many appointments. So I just said, “You know what, I have to take care of my kid—that’s my 50-meter target.”

There is no balance, especially when you’re a mom, especially when you’re a wife, and definitely when you’re a soldier. And so I put my health to the side, which probably hurt me in the long run, but I felt that it was needed.

As women we sacrifice for our children, we sacrifice for our job, and sometimes we even sacrifice for our love life. Even when looking for supportive services, I was turned away from the VA because of my gender—I was told they didn’t have any supportive housing services for women and their children, and they told me to go get welfare and food stamps because I had an illegitimate child. If there was a male veteran who had a child when he wasn’t married, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t call his child an illegitimate child. They probably would just refer to him as “your son.”

It’s that subliminal way of thinking of how we see women in this country. When a male veteran has a need or issue it’s America’s fault, America has to help him. When a woman veteran has a need or issue, she failed herself: “What did you do to get yourself in that position?” It’s the same kind of rape [culture] mentality. “What were you doing over there at 3 o’clock in the morning?” or “Why were you wearing that short skirt?” We are always dressed down whenever something traumatic has happened to us. But I’ve noticed that a lot of male veterans are not re-stigmatized just based on their gender.

KB: What type of supports do you think would be helpful to other soldiers and veterans who are balancing their own care and needs as well as the care and needs of their families?

JB: I think people just need to realize that putting you in uniform does not make you a robot, it does not make you beyond need, it does not make you beyond care. And although we say we want to serve veterans equally and we need to serve veterans equally, we can’t. Men and women do not have the same make-up. [Most] men don’t need mammograms, men don’t need pap smears, men don’t need OB-GYNs. I say that because not every [VA] has an OB-GYN or a place where you can get mammograms or pap smears and things like that.

When a male veteran has an issue, it’s America’s fault. When a woman veteran has an issue, she failed herself.

KB: I would love for you to tell us about the organization you started, Final Salute. What is the goal, how did you start it, and how did you get it off the ground?

JB: I started Final Salute out of necessity. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I just would love to create a nonprofit.” I never saw myself creating a nonprofit. I saw myself as a soldier. But I also saw that women veterans were still being treated like second-class veterans, and no one was doing anything about it. Nobody was really even talking about it. I thought I was just that one soldier who slipped through the cracks. But there are tens of thousands of women veterans who are homeless. Women veterans are the fastest growing homeless population in America, and women veterans are also 250 percent more likely to commit suicide than any other women in American society.

Our mission is to provide homeless women veterans and children with vacant, suitable housing. And we have been able to raise $3 million to assist more than 36,000 women veterans. But there are still 55,000 homeless women veterans in America on any given day.

KB: How do you balance both helping women have financial security and independence while making sure they can also still be mothers and wives and family members?

JB: The key is keeping them with their children. The best thing you can do for a mother who’s struggling is keep her children with her. That way she can ensure that they’re safe, she can ensure that they’re taken care of. A lot of the VA shelters won’t do that: On my last count, I think out of 500 only 15 took in women with children. Some women are forced to give their children to friends and family members or even to the state because they can’t support them. Some women are forced to stay in domestic violence situations, because if they leave they won’t have anywhere to go with their child. Or some women sleep in their cars with their children. Homelessness isn’t just that guy on the park bench or in a tent city. Our primary means of survival are couch surfing, navigating from home to home until our welcome runs out so we can keep our children with us. We found that women thrive when their children are with them, and then once they know they are taking care of their responsibility as a mother, that allows them to focus on things like employment support or going back to school or getting that financial education and counseling they need.

We also noticed that [women need to] regain their tribes. When you are going through any situation, especially a hardship, tribe is important. In the military, we thrive in tribe because we are a unit; each member in the military becomes our family. When we watch people come into our transition home and regain that tribe and regain that sisterhood, we just see that drastic change in momentum in commitment from them.

KB: I really appreciate hearing about all your work again. It’s so inspiring, and I think it’s going to really hit a lot of people.

JB: Thank you for the opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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