WASHINGTON – If you ask, she’ll tell you she is a gentle East Texas rose and old-time suffragette laced with a touch of sass. The last 11 U.S. presidents, however, would likely say she is more sass than southern belle.
Sarah McClendon, 87, has been hurling press conference- halting questions at presidents for more than 50 years – longer than anyone in the history of the republic.
From Roosevelt to Clinton, her questions have turned presidential faces scarlet, and she is quite proud of that. But there is nothing she takes more pride in than what will soon be the Sarah McClendon House – the first shelter for homeless veterans in Washington.
It is expected to open sometime this summer.
The shelter will be the only transitional shelter in the country that will set aside a building for female veterans and their children, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Pete Dougherty, program manager for the Veterans Help program at the VA, said the shelter was named after McClendon because she has been pestering the government to do more for women veterans for about as long as she has been posing questions to presidents.
“Within minutes of first coming up with the idea someone suggested we name it after her,” Dougherty said. “It just fit.”
McClendon said no one called her to tell her the news. She heard of it when she got a faxed press release about the proposed shelter last summer.
“I was overwhelmed by it,” said McClendon, who runs her own news service. “I thought they only did that for people who are dead.”
The shelter, funded in part with a $900,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be housed in two three-story, side-by-side buildings on the 3500 block of 16th Street in Northwest.
Up to a dozen men will stay in one building. Between six and 10 women will stay in the other, depending on how many children are with the women. The facility will be operated by the Metropolitan Washington Council for Homeless Veterans Inc., an educational group.
It will admit men and women who are participating in drug, alcohol or psychiatric treatment programs at the VA hospital.
“The shelter will be a good first step for people who are in a really bad place,” Dougherty said. Shelter guests are expected to stay for six to eight months, he said.
In addition to job training and money management programs, the veterans will be able to take advantage of individual and group counseling if they are having difficulty readjusting to life after their war experiences.
Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said there aren’t enough such shelters in the country.
According to a 1994 study conducted by the coalition, about one third of the homeless population nationally is made up of veterans. “Many of those veterans are very bitter about their war experiences and believe the government lied to them,” Boone said. “They don’t want to trust or ask for help.”
About a tenth of the general population is made up of veterans, Boone said.
There are several small veterans shelters sprinkled around the country, but Boone could not say how many. The larger ones are in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles.
There are about 275,000 homeless veterans in the United States, according to the coalition’s 1994 study. The Washington area has one of the largest concentrations, Boone said. There are 3,750 in Washington, 3,850 in Maryland and 7,110 in Virginia, according to the study.
“All is not well with these veterans,” said McClendon, who said she spends time each week chatting with veterans around the pool at the VA hospital. “It is so awful. They serve the country. It shouldn’t be like that.”
McClendon said advocating for veterans has come naturally for her. The former officer in the Office of the Army Surgeon General had to fight her own fight in June 1944.
She insisted on her right to give birth at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and became the first Army officer to have a baby at a military hospital.
Today, as she sits in her apartment overlooking Cleveland Park, she continues to prod the VA. “I’m not going to stop calling. I’ll be much happier when they get this thing open,” she said. -30-