The Forgotten Ones: The Plight of Homeless Women in America and an Interview with Marie

by Johanna Elattar

It’s March: Women’s History Month. We honor women, their accomplishments, and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. As we remember all the amazing women, I can’t help but think of the forgotten ones. The old woman sitting on a street corner, begging for change from passers by. The young woman doing sex work just to have a little to eat or a place to sleep. The single mother with her child, fending for herself and her baby in a homeless shelter.

There are approximately 582,462 individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S., and the numbers have only increased since 2020 and COVID-19. More than a quarter of those experiencing homelessness are women, some with children. Women and families are the fastest growing groups of those experiencing homelessness nationwide, and currently make up about 34% of the homeless population.

There are many factors that contribute to homelessness. Inflated cost of living and lack of affordable housing are how many women end up living on the street. There’s a disparity between rent and income for most women living in poverty. Women aren’t paid the same wages as men, and a woman getting minimum wage can’t afford to pay the high rents that even the worst of places demand. There’s still a big stigmatization of women on welfare. She is called everything from “lazy” to a “parasite” living off the system. Nothing could be further from the truth. For some, welfare is the only way to survive, since many are not paid a living wage to make ends meet, especially if they have children. 

Research shows that a large percentage of homeless women have experienced childhood  sexual and/or physical abuse, as well as domestic violence by a partner later in life. At least 63% of homeless women have experienced domestic violence. These homeless women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related issues, which are rarely addressed by the welfare system or organizations that help with homelessness.  

I was put in touch with a volunteer named Marie. Marie was homeless for most of her life, and she helped me understand what it’s like for women facing homelessness. Marie is middle-aged, and has been in and out of several shelters in New York City ever since she became homeless at age 14.  

“They never once asked me if I was all right, I mean, they never asked if something bad had happened to me when I was a kid, or if I was struggling with mental problems. I guess they assumed that I must  be. I’ve met many women on the street that had schizophrenia and things like that, but that wasn’t what I was dealing with. I had nightmares, I’ve tried to commit suicide at least four or five times throughout my life. I was in deep! Deep in drugs, sex, the streets—that’s not a life. I was so tired of it  all, you know? I tried to tell them, but they didn’t get into it with me. After the fourth or fifth social worker, I just stopped trying. You feel lousy after that, when no one listens to you. When you know that you’re just another faceless, nameless woman, and nobody is interested in what’s going on with you, like you don’t matter,” said Marie. 

Homeless women are at very high risk of sexual victimization and violent physical abuse while living on the street. Some homeless women turn to survival sex—exchanging sex for food, or a place to sleep. Many find themselves in extremely dangerous situations where they are prone to abuse, assault, even murder. A high number of homeless sex workers suffer from substance abuse. Homeless women with traumatic experiences early in life have increased chances of substance abuse. Many turn to drugs in order to cope with their situation, and some must stay in abusive relationships because in some ways it feels safer than being alone. 

“I used to dance, you know, when I was young, in little hole-in-the-wall clubs. I had men that would come in just to see me. I was kind of homeless then, but you know, I’d go home with them, spend a couple of days, get some money, eat, sleep and give them what they want. Sometimes, they’d even give me a little taste (drugs)—it was good, and I didn’t have to sleep in the street. Can’t do that anymore,” said Marie, laughing.

I asked Marie if she was ever in a relationship with someone on the street for protection, or companionship. Marie said:

“Yeah, later on, when I couldn’t dance anymore. You know, you can’t look good forever, and this life takes a toll on you. I got into some ‘relationships.’ There was a couple of guys, and later, a woman, but you know, that kind of thing, it isn’t real. Every single one of those relationships, I was abused, hit, stolen from, you name it! I thought I was being smart, not going in alone and whatever. But, no, I wasn’t  any better off than when I was alone. I was always taking care of someone else and myself. It made it harder, well, for me, it was harder than being alone, sometimes.”

Mental illness affects approximately 65% of homeless women, and almost half of all women who are homeless have a major depressive disorder, which is twice the rate of women in the general population. Women are more likely than men to experience trauma, assault and PTSD when they do not have stable housing.

“Yeah, you can say I suffer from mental stuff. When I was a kid, I had an uncle who didn’t know how to keep his hands to himself, you know? I told my mother, [but] she didn’t want to believe me because he was her brother. Then after my father died—he died when I was about 8 or 9—she had all these boyfriends. One of them got me pregnant. I was just a kid, just turned 14. My mother threw me out when I told her what happened. She said that it was all my fault. She made me leave the same night that I told her. I  could only take a few clothes, and things like that. That was the last time I saw her. I stayed with one of my friends’ family, but after a while, I knew that I wore out my welcome and had to leave,” Marie said of her trauma, with obvious pain in her voice.

“I was sleeping on the street, in a shelter, sometimes, whatever. Then, I met a girl that gave up her baby. She told me about this agency that helps get the baby adopted. They took care of me till the baby was born. They had me sign the papers a half hour after giving birth. The nurse told me it was a girl, I didn’t look at her. I knew that I couldn’t give her up if I saw her. After that, I was back on the street. They only help till the baby is born, but they don’t care about the mother or what happens to her after that. I wasn’t given any help, just a few dollars that didn’t last. I hope she has a good life, but I try not to think about her. Not much anyway.” Marie turned to sex work in order to survive, once she was back on the street, and the little money she had ran out. She was only 15 years old.

According to Marie, homeless women face challenges that are unique to them because they are women. One example of this is menstruation. The average person who menstruates spends up to $300 a year on pads and tampons.The additional costs of a menstrual cycle, like birth control and pain medication, can add up to thousands of dollars over a lifetime, something that a woman experiencing homelessness cannot afford. Some organizations provide people with pads and tampons. However, many suffer from lack of donations, especially incontinence supplies. 

Besides hygiene issues, homeless people disproportionately report living with HIV/AIDS. A disproportionate number of those without housing have substance abuse issues, making it more likely that they will contract HIV. The resulting health care needs are complex and costly. A University of Southern California study found that antiretrovirals for HIV patients cost an average of $18,668 per patient, which a homeless person couldn’t possibly pay. Additionally, the conditions of homelessness put people living with HIV/AIDS at a higher risk for diseases that target their weakened immune systems and result in life-threatening outcomes.  

“Yeah, I knew lots of women and girls with AIDS, or at least HIV. Thank God I never got it, but I do have hepatitis C, and I’m getting treatment for it now. I got it from, you know, a needle during my drugging days. Most of these girls that get a virus like that, they just keep spreading it. They don’t even know they have it. They do what they have to do to eat, feed their habits and just stay alive,” Marie said when I asked her about homeless women with HIV/AIDS. 

Many women become homeless with their young children. The annual average cost of child care in the U.S. is over $10,000. Not being able to afford child care is a potential cause of housing instability. Approximately 85% of homeless families are headed by a single woman with little or no social networks that could assist her with child care. The inability to have stable child care and stable housing often results in single mother families becoming homeless.  

“When I was on the street, I was so glad that I gave up my baby for adoption. There was some girls, you know, when I was out there. They had their babies with them, they’d give their kids to other homeless people to watch while they turned tricks in the alleys. There was some instances where the kids would be molested by the people who were watching them. But, what can these women do? Their babies were hungry and crying for food, milk, whatever. They had to get money somehow. Some of those girls got beat up, some even murdered, and they never caught their killers. Nobody cares about some dead hooker, anyway,” Marie said quietly. 

The plight of homeless women is not just an issue for big cities. It doesn’t only affect women who have mental illness, addictions or have a history of abuse. Many women are only one paycheck away from becoming homeless or are experiencing domestic violence. Some elderly women will end up on the street because they don’t have the resources to pay rent or even have enough to eat. Those are the forgotten women of Women’s History Month.

The shelters, and organizations that help homeless women, are in need of donations. Please consider making a monthly donation or give some of the following: 

Tampons and pads.  

Travel size toiletries such as toothpaste, deodorant, etc.  

Wipes, diapers and toys 

Children’s clothing and books 

Shoes and socks 

Bus passes 

Old cellphones 

Bras and underwear 

Winter coats