Homeless Women and the Challenges We Don’t See


Often times, when members of the public think about homeless people, they often picture an elderly white man. Sometimes they may think of a man of color, but rarely do they picture a woman. While women may very well experience homelessness at the same rate as men—meaning just as many have no place of their own to call home, they are often invisible. They often don’t appear homeless to passersby, and don’t even show up in our annual counts of homeless people (which is one of the reasons why estimates of the number of homeless people are inaccurate and undercounted).

They are more likely to be couch surfing and relying on friends and family to take them in. They sometimes are forced to compromise themselves with people they don’t trust, and who treat them badly. I commonly run into women who tell me they stay with a batterer, because he is an enemy they know, as opposed to sleeping on the streets with other unknown dangers. For women, being homeless is particularly dangerous.

According to the San Francisco Point in Time Count and Survey of 2015, which counts the number of homeless people in San Francisco, one-third of homeless people identified as female. About one-quarter of the shelter beds for single adults are for women. For women on the streets, they find themselves in definitively male dominated spaces as well. For housed women, closing the door means an end to the sexual harassment they face on the streets, and a breath of relief. For homeless women, that breath of relief never comes. The homeless count misses a lot of hidden populations, especially families with children, which make up about 40 percent of the overall homeless population, and of whom, in San Francisco 76 percent of homeless families are single mother led families.

“As a single mother with two teenage children, you always have to be overly protective as to where you lay your head a tight. You are their protector. That’s one of my struggles—being sleep deprived. I try my hardest to be indoors with my kids, but it gets draining at times, not getting any sleep and constantly being on the go. The kids’ behavior changes as well, ‘cause there is no comfort zone. They feel unsafe,” one 40 year old homeless mother shared.

The causes of homelessness among women are similar to other populations: disparity between rents and income, lack of a social safety net or affordable housing, health problems, and poverty and a consequent lack of access to accumulated wealth. However, there is one major difference in that domestic violence is a leading driver of homelessness among women and women with children; nationally, approximately a third of women cite domestic violence as reason for homelessness.

Once women become homeless, they find themselves particularly vulnerable to victimization, physical, and sexual violence. There have been many in-depth studies on this issue, and while findings vary, they all tell similar stories. One study found in a diverse sample that 92 percent of homeless women experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence, with about just less than half reporting sexual abuse in childhood and two-thirds reporting intimate partner violence in adulthood. (Browne & Bassuk, 1997). In another study, 9 percent of women reported at least one experience of sexual victimization in the last month alone (Wenzel, Koegel & Gelberg, 2000). Women who do not have custodial children are at particular risk of sexual violence, as they are more likely to be forced to sleep outside, and the sexual assaults of these women are more likely to be violent and contain multiple sex acts (Stermac & Paradis, 2001).

As a result, many women, in order to enhance their safety, are forced to trade sex for a place to sleep. In a recently published UCSF study of 108 homeless women with custody of children in San Francisco, 28 percent of women reported having had sex in exchange for a place to stay.

Homeless women find themselves affected by multiple layers of trauma. They have the trauma of struggling to meet their basic needs and trying to find a safe place to sleep combined with multiple traumas of sexual and physical violence. They are often forced to rely on men for safety, which also may compromise their own dignity and self-determination. If they are sleeping on the streets, they are subject to the whims of strangers looking for easy prey that does not require a lock to pick or a window to break. The very act of living outdoors means their health will disintegrate over time, leading to more vulnerability.

“I feel like, when you’re a single parent with two children, it’s challenging ‘cause I have to protect my children. And I’m very petite. People get hurt in shelters. Raped. Molested and everything,” says Shavell, a 26 year old homeless woman. She goes on to say, “Everyday is a struggle. Even with the police now it’s just a challenge everyday. When you’re an African American woman, it’s just hard.”

Homeless women, like other homeless people, may develop an addiction disorder, which is highly linked to trauma. Homeless women who have had the awful experience of either physical or sexual victimization were three times more likely to report both drug and alcohol abuse or dependence than homeless women who were not victimized in the past month (24.3 percent vs. 7.9 percent) (Wenzel, Leake & Gelberg, 2000). Addictive disorders among women, also lends itself to increased vulnerability and dependency, creating a vicious cycle.

Another side effect of homelessness among women is survival sex and prostitution. Rarely a choice, this also increases the rate of sexual and physical violence dramatically.

For women with mental health issues, life on the streets is particularly challenging. Some women may have a mental health issue when entering homelessness, but homelessness itself often forcibly disintegrates the mental health of women on the streets. They are also more highly susceptible to victimization—with almost a third of women in a study of homeless women with severe mental illnesses reporting at least one sexual or physical assault in the last month! (Goodman, Dutton & Harris, 1995; Goodman, Johnson, Dutton, & Harris, 1997). Multiple traumas further disintegrate their mental health and impairs their functioning.

A 40 year old homeless woman commented on being a woman and living in the shelter, “Sleeping in the shelters is just too stressful. You’re not really sleeping, you gotta keep one eye opened. Someone will just do something out of nowhere. Set you on fire, rob you, stuff like that.”

Another echoes the constant feeling of being in danger while being homeless: “The violence is scary! People think you’re gang related.”

Women on the streets face a lot of challenges unique to women as well. Lack of regular access to hygiene is even more difficult for women, as they struggle without access to bathrooms, feminine hygiene products, showers, and other basic necessities. Often, these basic needs like pads and tampons are not provided at shelters, and are incredibly expensive for a woman experiencing homelessness. This can chip away at a women’s dignity in very tangible ways, and also can create more gynecological health issues. The dehumanization of women, and the societal shaming they face has harmful effects on their feeling of worth, and causes overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.

These challenges are even more difficult for transgender women. Indeed, social services programs often fail to appropriately serve homeless people who are transgender. Homeless women’s shelters may refuse to accept transgender women into their programs, forcing them to stay at a men’s or general population shelter, where their risk of being sexually, emotionally, and physically harassed skyrockets. This has been a tense issue between the LGBTQ community and some religious organizations who run homeless shelters, but refuse to support accept transgender people. Transgender people, and transgender women in particular, face even greater discrimination when looking for housing and homeless services, and are often left out of the conversation about women’s homelessness.

All women should have a safe and decent place to call home, and the solutions lay within that very truth. In the meantime, ensuring they have a safe place to sleep, shower and thrive would go a long way.