Action Alert

A Lack of Services for Homeless Women and Families

A Lack of Services for Homeless Women and Families
Yvette Richards prepares food at the Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Louisville, Ky. The church provides food to homeless people.

On any given night, nearly 565,000 people won’t have a place of their own to go home to. The most invisible population of them are the families and the individual women and girls experiencing homelessness.

Those 206,286 families experiencing homelessness go unnoticed by the general public because they are less visible; they are more likely to be in a shelter or other housing program than homeless individuals are, and are not as often seen on the street.

Individual women and girls are invisible in a very different way: The majority of the services and programs set up to help the homeless were made in response to the larger homeless men population.

Properly funded government programs geared toward the causes of homelessness and the different life experiences for homeless women are not common. Since women and girls make up about 60 percent of all homeless people in families and are more likely to be the head of poor households, the lack of gender-specific services for the homeless affects both individual women and families.

Why Focus on Women?

There can be multiple reasons why a person is homeless: Poverty, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, substance abuse, lack of mental health services, abusive home life and natural disasters are just a few. However, women experience certain social inequalities that could increase their risk of homelessness.

Gendered violence is an experience most homeless women have had in their lifetimes, and it is also an immediate cause of homelessness for some women.

In Massachusetts, a study found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced physical and/or sexual assault. More than half of these women were also survivors of domestic violence. Women are also more likely to have experienced childhood abuse than men.

Domestic violence puts women at risk of becoming homeless since abusers often isolate them from support networks and financial resources. Survivors of domestic violence may also experience anxiety, panic disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse because of the abuse. Women are also more likely to be evicted or refused housing because of domestic violence, despite not being at fault.

As a result, service providers have noted that many women, as a minority in mixed shelters or housing programs, feel unsafe in these environments. The staff at these homeless shelters or programs may also not be able to address the specific challenges women face or be able to provide a safe space with mental health services.

Poverty — whether caused by low income, unemployment, lack of affordable housing or other factors — is another potential reason women and families find themselves homeless.

More than one in seven women live in poverty, as do one in five children in the United States. More than half of these children live in families headed by women.

Poverty rates for women are higher than those of men, especially for women of color. This difference exists for a number of reasons, including wage inequality and fewer job opportunities in higher paying sectors.

Women are more likely to be employed in lower paying jobs; they are the majority of minimum wage earners and are overrepresented in tipping jobs and domestic service work, where they may earn even less. Women of color are especially overrepresented in these low paying jobs and face a harsher wage gap.

This pay gap worsens for the younger generation, too. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, among hourly workers from ages 20 to 24, women were twice as likely as men to be paid minimum wage or less.

The Government Response

The federal government has multiple programs to fund organizations and agencies that provide services to the homeless. These mostly consist of providing monetary assistance to cover housing costs (i.e., rent, mortgages, utilities) and providing resources for health care, substance abuse and mental health programs. However, as rents and housing costs increase, it’s becoming harder to find public housing options and affordable rooms in apartment buildings participating in the federal programs.

Another resource is the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans hotline, as well as multiple programs for female veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Female veterans face several different challenges than their male counterparts, such as military sexual trauma, and are more likely to develop PTSD, according to the VA. Therefore, like other women at risk for homelessness, they need gender-specific services that factor in these different experiences as part of their outreach and treatment.

The VA has several programs geared towards women through its Center for Women Veterans, including primary care and mental health care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Urban Development (HUD) has also made an effort to require that domestic violence service providers coordinate with homeless services to properly assess and meet the needs of all women seeking help in either program. For domestic violence survivors, there is also the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program that funds emergency shelters and assistance to women and families running away from domestic violence situations. For survivors of human trafficking, the U.S. Department of Justice provides housing under a grant program, as well as housing resources under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015. As women make up 55 percent of all trafficked individuals, such assistance is beneficial in helping homeless women find housing.

Since there are currently no specific homeless assistance programs solely geared towards women at the federal level, it is up to states and cities to implement gender-specific services.

The demographics of the homeless population, as well as the scope of the issue, differ from state to state. As a result, there have been many different attempts to help the homeless.

Different Approaches

In New York State, where the population of homeless individuals is more than 80,000, the governor recently ordered that social service agencies and police must move homeless individuals into shelters when the temperature drops to freezing, even if the move is against their will. However, the largest population of homeless people resides in California; the state accounts for 21 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. Since 2007, California has seen a decline in its homeless population.

For San Francisco, this drop was partly because of a 10-year plan to house the homeless permanently by building supportive housing units and establishing a program to pay for the transportation of homeless individuals back to their families. The plan succeeded in moving 19,500 homeless people off the streets, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, the plan failed to accommodate for children and families. According to the Director of the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach, the plan exclusively focused on finding housing for single adults, not families.

With few housing options for families slated for construction, many families have to rely on the 74 shelter spaces provided. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there are more than 200 families on the waiting list for these shelters, and that wait can take six months or longer.

San Francisco has some programs that focus on women, such as a women-only drop-in center and a prenatal program for the homeless and those at risk for homelessness. However, the homeless population has been growing, not shrinking, in the area for the past year. This increase could be the result of fewer drop-in centers and shelter beds, increasing housing costs, and less government support. Organizations like Asian Women’s Shelter have been trying to fill in the gaps by providing gender-specific support and housing.

For other organizations offering support and housing, it is actually the keeping of people in housing that is the problem.

National Mission Institutions

Dion Roberts is the executive director at Mary Elizabeth Inn, which has a permanent housing program with two buildings and 157 units. Mary Elizabeth Inn is a designated National Mission Institution, which United Methodist Women supports. In addition to Mary Elizabeth Inn, United Methodist Women mission dollars support Gum Moon Residence in San Francisco, California; David & Margaret Youth and Family Services in La Verne, California; Emma Norton Services in St. Paul, Minnesota; Killingsworth, Inc. in Columbia, South Carolina; Shesler Hall in Sioux City, Iowa; and Navajo United Methodist Center in Farmington, New Mexico.

Success, according to Roberts, is not in housing homelessness individuals and families, but in keeping them housed.

“There is much that goes into helping people stay housed,” Roberts said. “With there being few to no choices for people to transition into, we have a population of aging adults who remain in our facilities because it may very well be their only safe and affordable option.”

As in most cities across the United States, more needs to be done to incorporate women and families when providing homelessness assistance — assistance that needs to include permanent solutions.

As a leader on women’s homelessness, St. Mungo’s Alexia Murphy realized that women are falling through the cracks of a system that wasn’t made for them. “If we don't get the right help to women at the right time, and coordinate preventative support around women's housing, mental health, violence against women and girls, criminal justice, and vulnerable children,” Murphy said, “the risk is that more women will fall through the gap and end up being passed from service to service and feeling like they are failing — when, in actual fact, it is the services that are failing.”

Posted or updated: 8/30/2016 12:00:00 AM

Suggested Pages:

*Action Alerts
*Domestic Violence Awareness
*National Mission Institutions

Take Action:

  • Mobilize your community to end domestic violence.
  • Watch the documentary 70 Acres in Chicago.
  • Meet your Congressional representatives or contact them through the Congressional switchboard (202-224-3121). Urge them to support the following bills:
    • Public Housing Tenant Protection and Reinvestment Act of 2015 (H.R.2231) will finance the rehabilitation and construction of more public housing.
    • Enhancing Services for Runaway and Homeless Victims of Youth Trafficking Act of 2015 (H.R.468) will provide grants to states, localities and private agencies to improve upon services for runaway youth and homeless youth.
    • Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (S.262 & H.R.1779) requires local centers to provide safe shelter and services, including trauma-informed and gender-responsive services, for runaway and homeless youth, including victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation.
    • Housing America’s Workforce Act of 2015 (H.R.480) gives employers incentive to provide their employees with homeowner/rental assistance by having a business-related tax credit for up to 50 percent (100 percent for small business employers) of the paid, qualified housing expenses.
    • Fair Pay Act of 2015 (H.R.1787) proposes prohibiting discrimination in the payment of wages on account of sex, race, or national origin.
    • Paycheck Fairness Act (S.862 & H.R.1619) seeks to end paycheck discrimination based on sex.
    • Raise the Wage Act (S.1150 & H.R.2150) proposes raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour over the next four years, before leaving the Secretary of Labor in charge of determining the amount each year.
    • Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund Act of 2015 (H.R.2591) establishes a fund to provide services to homeless veterans.
    • Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act (S.471 & H.R.1356) requires that all VA medical facilities meet the gender-specific health care needs of veterans, including privacy, safety and dignity.
    • Children’s Recovery from Trauma Act (S.1494 &  H.R.2632) supports programs as part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative that identify and treat youth with mental, behavioral, and biological disorders resulting from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.
    • Candace’s Law (H.R.64) requires states to strengthen the sentencing for people that commit domestic violence in the presence of minor children. 

Learn More:

Being Homeless

  • Homeless women are more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other
    mental health disorders than other American women.
  • Homeless women are also more prone to health problems such as anemia, asthma, chronic bronchitis, hypertension and ulcers.
  • Children who are homeless are four times more likely to experience health issues. They are very likely to have witnessed violence, to experience education disruptions and to have delayed development. Many children will also develop mental health issues as a result of the traumatic and stressful experience.
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