When I was just barely 14, I was raped while out on a date by my camp counselor at a sleepaway camp. It’s a tragically common story – a young girl wooed by a handsome authority figure she inherently trusted. I thought I was mature and worldly when I explained I was a virgin and was not ready for sex. Turns out it wouldn’t have mattered what I said because I was part of some crude game, as the bloody proof of his conquest was put on display as a flag to wave beneath the lovely pines and the firs.
But I consider myself to be so lucky. I am no longer in the woods as I was that night. When I go to bed at night I can close my eyes and relax into the knowledge that my and my children’s walls are thick and I have a door I can lock. For hundreds of thousands of women in the United States that is simply not the case – they are out in the woods, in the parks, on the sidewalks, in jails, in tents, in shelters, in cars. They don’t have thick walls. They don’t have locks to turn.
This past year we have made strident progress drawing attention to the sexual harassment and assault that women face in the workplace. Women with admirable courage transformed their private humiliations into great acts of dignified resistance. These acts were like a sledgehammer driven into the upper tiers of the patriarchy, which have started to crumble. But there is a deafening silence with regards to the street. So silent. So quiet. Like a bloody flag waving in the woods.
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. It never comes.
I think of Patricia who is not so unlike the over 1,200 mothers experiencing homelessness in SF alone. She was put out of a women’s center – she was given no blankets for her night in the woods. She sat in a park while her and her children shivered so hard that cold night. Finally, she could not take it and at about 2:00 a.m. she went to her children’s father’s house. A place she swore she would never return. He brutally beat her in front of her children. The silence surrounding her truth is deafening.
Women become homeless because of racism, poverty, and immoral inaction by our country’s leaders. However, homeless women face another force – intimate partner and childhood sexual violence. Once women become homeless, they find themselves even more vulnerable to violence. They have the trauma of struggling to meet their children’s basic needs. They are forced to partner with men out of desperation for safety. They find their physical and mental health may fall apart and turn to drugs and alcohol in despair. They are then condemned and dehumanized, referred to as trash, and policy debates surrounding their existence call for their jailing and institutionalization. They find the shelters full and the waits for housing years and years long.
All women, in fact all humans, have a fundamental right to safe and decent housing, and the solutions lay within that very truth. Our collective resistance as women and ally men MUST include rising up against the federal divestment of housing that caused this crisis in the first place, against the actions of HUD under Trump and against his tax giveaway package, which are all forcing hundreds of thousands more to streets. Our daily resistance must ensure homeless people have a safe place to sleep, shower and thrive.
I think of the very young Latina woman who like me was also camping, but instead of the forest she was forced to camp in the streets of the Mission. She was serial raped one awful night. However, in this situation, instead of silence, her rape was used by a politically ambitious male politician as an excuse to put a mean initiative on the ballot to tear away her tent. She was not consulted as to whether this was a good idea, or as to whether she was more safe sleeping on the concrete, or whether there was room in the shelter for her instead. In fact, no homeless women were consulted, because if they were, they would have heard that as awful as a tent is, it is far better than sleeping exposed on the sidewalk. And, god damn, the cost of just 10 destroyer ships would make sure every human in this country has a real place to call home, and none of us would be forced to sleep in a tent.
As we rip through the silence and demand solutions to the severe poverty and destitution women face in this country – we must turn to those same women to lead us. I have one such woman, a powerful, beautiful, poverty surviving woman right here next to me.
—– Give it up for Jacquilynn Evans