One of the most troubling stats that somehow got buried in the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s report on SoCal’s homeless in January has to do with women. Over the last three years in Los Angeles County, there’s been a 55 percent growth in the number of women living in shelters or on the street. That’s compared to an already alarming rise of nearly 19 percent in the Southland’s overall homeless population.
While the 14,500 homeless women is far less than the 32,500 men in the county, it’s of considerable concern to the head of the Downtown Women’s Center. Since 1978, the center, started by social worker Jill Halverson, has offered homeless women hot meals, showers, clothing, classes and, most of all, a safe place to hang out and live.
“The issue of women’s homelessness has been ignored,” says Anne Miskey, the CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center.
She’s sitting at a dark wood conference table in a painted cinder block room on the second floor of the center off San Pedro Street. Nearby is Pamela Walls, who was homeless for 11 years and is now an advocate for homeless women at the center. “It has been lumped in with men. It’s been kind of a one size fits all solution for homelessness, which fits nobody.
“But our experience is that there are unique reasons why women become homeless that are different from men,” she points out. “And their experiences while homeless are going to be different, and Pam can certainly talk to that. And the things they need or are looking to as they’re moving out of homelessness are also different, beyond saying everybody needs a home.”
Safer on street
Miskey wasn’t at all surprised by the 55 percent increase.
“We’re seeing it, feeling it here at the center,” she reports. “And then we’re hearing about it from colleagues in other parts of the city and country. One colleague who runs a shelter said, ‘We just don’t know what to do.’ There are not many shelter beds for women. A lot of places won’t even take women. They’re built for men.
“Our women struggle with the fact that getting housing is incredibly difficult. They can’t get a shelter bed. So we’re seeing increasing numbers. We did a needs assessment here a few months ago of women in the Skid Row area. What came out was that the number of unsheltered women staying on the street has increased, and the number of women staying in shelters has gone down. So we see more women actually living on the street.”
Miskey takes a breath and says they haven’t really studied that yet. But many women have told her they just don’t feel safe in a shelter.
Walls, who has penetrating eyes and bright blonde hair well over her shoulders, is nodding. “Isn’t that strange that they feel safer on the street than they do in a shelter? I know I did. People are going under your cot or bed taking your things at night while you sleep. There’s fights. There’s people sexually harassing you. People are having hallucinations at night, and you can’t sleep.
“And there are strict rules in shelters,” she says. “You have to shower and eat at certain times and go to bed. All these rules and restrictions. And sometimes you don’t get along with staff or don’t get the services that you think you should be getting. People just decide, ‘I’m out of here!’”
Driven by violence
What drives women into homelessness is something most men don’t usually experience. “Domestic violence is number one, followed by sexual abuse,” says Miskey. “Of course, economics underpins all of that. And we know that women’s wages are less than men’s. So they’re going to be more vulnerable. The other thing we found is that women suffer more — or at least report that they suffer more — physical and mental health issues.”
“Uh huh,” agrees Walls.
“So for a lot of women who are driven into homelessness, they are working, get sick and then could no longer work,” Miskey continues. “And then they end up on the streets. A lot of our women have multiple health problems and sometimes that combines with mental health issues. We see a lot of diabetes, arthritis. We see cancer, HIV. And if you don’t have money and you can’t work, and you have no support system, and you’re traumatized…”
To meet the health needs of homeless women, the Downtown Women’s Center has an on-site medical clinic. And to help them heal unseen wounds, every staff member is trained in what’s called “trauma-informed care.”
“Women generally have suffered much more trauma prior to becoming homeless,” Miskey notes. “Men tend to have witnessed violence more. Women actually have experienced it more. So we practice trauma-informed care, which is a philosophy that says, ‘What happened to you is not what’s wrong with you.’
“So it’s this idea of empowering people, treating people with dignity, with respect — understanding the kinds of violence and the traumas that they have gone through. With women it’s often domestic or sexual in nature. And we’ve been very successful. Some 98 percent stay permanently sheltered either in our apartments or in the community.”
Miskey talks about how society’s perception of homeless people plays a big role in keeping individuals homeless, especially for women. Homelessness isn’t a condition that people experience, she says, “rather it’s a pathology.” And the homeless have actually come to be seen in the U.S. today as a different type of humanity.
Walls almost has her hand up. “Society sees you as this entity that they don’t want to look at. You’re homeless because you chose to do drugs. You chose to become addicted. You lost your home. You lost your job. You are lazy, and you don’t want anything better. You don’t deserve anything better. That’s the perception people have.”
Now the head of the Downtown Women’s Center is nodding. “When the women come off the street to us, these are the people that society has failed,” Miskey says. “These are not women who are bad people or because they haven’t wanted to change end up on the street. These are women who have experienced all sorts of trauma, and they’ve just fallen through the cracks of society.”
After a moment, she adds, “I think if we as a society don’t recognize that we’re the ones who are actually at fault, and not them, we will continue to make it a moral issue that they are somehow sinners or they are at fault.”