CLEVELAND (WJW) — Alicia Emanuel knows exactly why she joined the U.S. Navy.

“I wanted to see the world, I wanted to see outside of Ohio,” said Emanuel who served for seven years in Connecticut. “It was nice, normal. It was a speed for me. That saltwater, it was beautiful.”

The Navy brought Emanuel camaraderie, but also challenges, like knowing when and how to use her voice. Coupled with a language barrier, Emanuel said it’s a difficulty that follows veterans back into civilian life and on the job.

“And it’s hard to slow it down, because I’m so excited about it, but I’m also going, ‘I’m so scared not to accomplish it,’” said Emanuel. “I don’t know what you want for me because I’ve missed out on what the real world does and I call it that because that’s all I know.”

For nearly a year, Alicia has lived at Judge Sara J. Harper Village in Cleveland. It’s the furnished affordable housing program Volunteers of America Ohio and Indiana opened in 2022.

There are 12 units in the complex and each is meant to give female veterans the space to recover and heal. After sickness, a major surgery, and losing her home in a house fire, Emanuel is rebuilding.

She is keeping up with her workouts in the shared gym, taking creative writing classes and even met the Village namesake: Judge Sara J. Harper, the first woman appointed to the Marine Corps Judiciary.

“You’re like, ‘What do I say? I don’t want to mess up my words’,” said Emanuel. “You felt like, ‘Yeah, somebody’s looking out for the veterans, females’.”

Volunteers of America Ohio and Indiana staff say, historically, veterans services were mostly focused on male veterans.

“So, to be able to carve out a space specifically for female veterans and really be intentional about providing their needs, from military sexual trauma, PTSD; the healing that happens just between the women, it’s almost magical, they support each other,” said Nora Hancock, Senior Director for Veterans Housing.

Women make up the fastest growing segment of the homeless veteran population. Hancock said after repressing trauma for years, many feel they have nowhere to go when those emotions surface, but the Village fills that need.

“Whether it’s a cookout, whether it’s coming in the community space and just doing, just kind of a talk session, whether it’s counseling, whether it’s discussing current events; just creating a space where each female veteran can really be herself,” said Hancock.

In Emanuel’s experience that also includes the freedom to be safe and by herself.  

“It gives me a lot more confidence. It feels good,” said Emanuel. “When I’m in my sad mode, I got my think-space.”

Judge Sara J. Harper Village provides permanent housing. Female veterans who live there can stay as long as they would like.

The same program opened years ago in Cincinnati and around half of the women have stabilized and transitioned into their own housing.