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Women Surviving the Streets

By Arnold Burgos

On February 17, 2017, an unnamed homeless woman was found lifeless in the doorway of a Mission Life Church in Fresno California. Her lifeless body laid on deaf concerns regarding the upward surge of hate crimes committed towards women experiencing homelessness. Could her death have been avoided? Or yet, did anybody hear her story?

Homelessness is complex, constantly discussed and given simplistic solutions. For example, discussions on overcrowded shelter beds do not account for the large communities who experience long-term homelessness. Ignoring gender when addressing homelessness leads to women who become vulnerable to victimization. Stereotypes of homelessness and double-standards on women make it difficult for women experiencing homelessness to receive adequate resources and adamant care.

Women who experience homelessness are defined as dirty, mentally ill, and dangerous. The notion of being a homeless woman leads to underreporting of crimes against these women. According to a 2016 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, from 2013 to 2014 there was a 61% increase of fatal attacks amongst the homeless population, 23% towards women. Women are treated by politicians and public alike as being passive, weak, and subordinate. Thus, women who experience homelessness are treated differently within the law and from social welfare networks due to their gender.

Rather than protected by law, women experiencing homelessness are criminalized. A study done by Fitzpatrick and Myrstol entitled “The Jailing of America’s Homeless” found that laws continue to target homelessness because this community is viewed by the public as bothersome with their unconventional behavior, appearance, and customs. A double standard among men and women allows for stricter ordinances when it comes to women. For instance, a study by Constance, Johnson, and Whitbeck entitled “Gender and Arrest among Homeless and Runaway Youth” found that panhandling and dumpster diving are legal, however, they may bring with them heightened visibility to the police and may increase the likelihood of police detecting illegal activity. This fear of arrest creates an underrepresentation of self-reporting assaults. A sexual assault report conducted by Goodman, Fels, and Glen found that women experiencing homelessness are afraid to contact law enforcement when experiencing sexual assault because of the “illegal activities” they might be in. Therefore, laws further make women experiencing homelessness vulnerable rather than “helps” them.
Women experiencing homelessness remains invisible since most of the shelters available are focused on men and do not adequately meet the needs of homeless women. Women experiencing homeless may have repeating episodes of trauma or PTSD that require specific psychiatric training. Research by Alexia Murphy within the St Mungo’s Foundation indicate that although 70% of women worked with have a mental health need, compared with 57% of homeless men, homeless men tend to receive more adequate stability. Social services need to focus on shelter and food as a primary care, which leads all secondary help, like mental needs, untreated. This in reaction continues a cycle of vulnerability as women who experience homelessness are reverted to the public from non-adequate resources.

Currently, many believe social welfare is adequate and yet over 500,000 remain vulnerable to becoming homeless each night. The UC Berkeley Center’s research entitled “The High Public Cost of Low Wages” found that an unmarried woman with dependents receives on average $337 a month to sustain a living. Meanwhile as CNN reported in 2009, Wells Fargo received a $25 billion governmental bail-out to sustain its own company. Farnsworth’s research entitled “Bring Corporate Welfare In” found that Corporate welfare competes with social welfare for state resources at various levels. Government programs often make a choice between the two in tackling the very same problem. Therefore, many communities in need of governmental aid are given social welfare networks with inadequate resources.

The unnamed women who was victimized a few days ago, has a unique story that may never be told, but we can work to hear other homeless women’s stories. Women experiencing homelessness continuously face challenges as social outcasts. We must collectively redefine women who experience homelessness without the negative stereotypes. Then we can strategize to give adequate resources. We can also begin to reframe important questions about victimization. For instance, why is it still so common for men to victimize women? Homelessness is complex issue, but we can unravel it one layer at a time, and create policies to address the realities women face as well.