I am not an expert on women’s issues, women’s safety, women’s empowerment, or women’s health, nor do I claim to have specific expertise on women’s homelessness. Like many of my male friends, the #YESALLWOMEN hashtag experience exposed me to some of the most sensitive, personal, violent, demeaning and unacceptable experiences of many female friends. It was jarring, but important learning for me on the magnitude and far reach of women’s experiences with men – and both threats and experiences of violence.

Reading this helped me put some of what was happening into context. While I have intentionally applied a gender lens to matters of homelessness in specific projects, I have more to learn. I knew, for example, that women face higher degrees of exploitation and higher rates of sexual assault than males that are experiencing homelessness, but recent events caused me to look deeper into the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the literature on sexual assault episodes and homeless women point to several limitations in capturing data from the population. Part of this stems from under-reporting within an already vulnerable and marginalized population (on top of generally accepted under-reporting of rape and sexual assault generally), as well as the experience of homeless persons engaging with police generally. All the same, as I read through scholarly articles and other publications, here is a smattering of what I learned:

  • homeless women are likely to have experienced sexual assault before, during and even after their experience of homelessness;
  • because victimization often is a precipitating factor for women’s homelessness, any approach to addressing homelessness than uses a “law and order” rather than a service driven response presents greater risks for retraumatizing women;
  • while rates of sexual assault have generally gone down, this same trend is not experienced with homeless women where the rates of sexual assault have remained unchanged;
  • homeless women are more likely to experience multiple victimizations from multiple perpetrators;
  • almost two-thirds of homeless women have experienced intimate partner violence as adults;
  • over the past 12 months, greater than 1 in 10 homeless women report being raped – and over half of these report being raped more than once;
  • approximately 1 in 5 homeless women will have been raped at some point in her lifetime;
  • impacts of the sexual assault are both physical and psychological, with higher rates of depression, suicide attempts and ideation, and dependent use of alcohol or other drugs to deal with the effects;
  • homeless women are disproportionately victims of hate speech;
  • one study from the mid 1990s even found that some men even saw a woman’s homelessness as a “license for sexual abuse”;
  • undoubtedly, homelessness is a risk factor for sexual assault.

So what is to be done? We can take steps to improve safety for homeless women. Here are 10 ideas that have crossed my mind or examples that I have seen in practice in other jurisdictions:

  1. Focus on housing as the solution to homelessness. Safe, secure and affordable housing decreases the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault.
  2. Through outreach and shelters, expand knowledge of available sexual assault resources within the community to help address and work on recovery from past experiences.
  3. Further educate outreach workers – especially street outreach workers – on how best to work with women they encounter that have experienced sexual violence and/or victimization, and how to work with law enforcement in report it.
  4. Provide adequate women’s only shelter resources in community – beyond Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence Shelter – for homeless women. A stand-alone, safe facility is preferred. However, if in a shared facility, a separate entrance with appropriate staffing and secure sleeping area is possible as an alternative.
  5. Expand access to women’s health resources through health services available to homeless persons.
  6. Address stigma, sexism and inappropriate comments and actions amongst service providers, government programs, and other homeless persons where/if it is encountered.
  7. Integrate education of homeless women’s issues into orientation to homeless services for new employees.
  8. Expand integrated offerings of homeless women’s issues into conferences at a local and national level – not solely as a “special track” but as a core element to presentations, seminars and workshops.
  9. As resources allow, permit formerly homeless women to select a woman as a case manager, if preferred.
  10. Integrate local sexual assault resources and law enforcement specializing in matters of sexual assault with homeless service provision rather than separate systems to be navigated (and re-telling of experience thereby potentially re-traumatizing).

Want to know more? A small example of the research that exists on the subject:

The University of Ottawa’s Institute for the Prevention of Crime: Homelessnesss, Victimization and Crime, 2008.

Novac, S., Brown, J., & Bourbonnais, C. (1996). No Room of Her Own: A Literature Review on Women and Homelessness. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Wome by Lisa A. Goodman, Ph.D., Katya Fels, & Catherine Glenn, M.A. with contributions from Judy Benitez

Victimization and Special Challenges of Women. Ontario Women’s Justice Network, 2008.

Tyler et al. The Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Later Sexual Victimization Among Female Homeless and Runaway AdolescentsJournal of Interpersonal Violence. March 2000, Volume 15, No. 3, 235-250.

The Street Health Report, 2007.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong


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  1. Chris Conner says:

    Hey Iain–

    I might recommend another step that can be taken. On field 15 of the VISPDAT prescreen it asks respondents if “they have any money coming in” aligning a number of options of what that could look like. Included in these options are job, government benefits, and sex work. There is only one way to respond to the question. Sex work is a big gray area and many (including myself) advocate for a harm reduction approach to how and where it occurs. For many women in homelessness the experience of “sex work” is exploitative, not consensual. Question 15 approximates environments that frequent assault, cohersion, and abuse alongside options such as signing up for SSI or having a job. I feel the “option” of sex work for women experiencing homelessness needs to be handled differently–particularly when the goal is to understand vulnerability. I would recommend extracting that as an option interviewers are putting in front of survey respondents for ways to have money coming in. No matter how progressive I am in thinking about what a safe sex industry could look like, it will be a long time, if ever, that women in homelessness will be given safe options to do that work. Until we get there sex work should simply never be compared to government benefits or over-the-table employment.

  2. the notorious j.a.y. says:

    sex work is a “gray area”???
    what’s “gray” about it?
    nothing “gray” about the fact that it happens.
    nothing “gray” about the connections between homelessness and sex work.
    nothing “gray” about the fact that we as outreach workers need to be comfortable discussing sex work in better discursive terms than calling it “a gray area”.

    so if we take that option off, the VI SPDAT, what then?

    how else do we acknowledge that sex work is a very real part of the lives of homeless people?

    in my opinion, by mentioning it when and how we do, we help alleviate some of the anxiety a participant might be feeling.

    i imagine that i would be crushed to know that the survey i just completed with an outreach worker would be of no service to me if “they” found out the things i’d had to do to survive.

    i would much rather have a built-in question that mentions sex work, than to have to basically ad-lib to each individual something like…

    “hey just in case you’re worried, we’re not mad at you for selling your sexuality so you or someone in your family wouldn’t die out here”

    the institutions that choose to help only the clean and sober homeless people have proven their largely lackluster worth over the decades, so if we are serious about ending this problem, then we must be willing to roll up our sleeves and have tough conversations where we openly accept that our clients have been or are currently sex workers.

    by acknowledging the existence of sex work, we are trying to lessen the impact of the inevitable sense of being judged that accompanies sexually exploitative situations.

    the only “benefit” i can perceive is that a shy interviewer can dodge a bullet of awkwardness, and in doing such ignore an enormous elephant in the room.

    i don’t think in any way does the wording in the SPDAT equivocate sex work with a government benefits or a “real job”. i think it does equivocate “non-legitimate” and so called “legitimate” jobs insomuch as that they are all “work” in the sense that these “illegitimate” jobs are not easy and that they come with a steep price of emotional damage and dramatically increased vulnerability. (i.e. its a “job” because it’s difficult and dangerous and it’s what has to be done to survive).

    by ignoring this, we continue to perpetuate the age old fallacy that sex work is “the world’s oldest profession”. (i.e. that sex work is a choice that is made out of convenience or some perceived lack of morals or “proper upbringing”, or whatever)

    the ONLY implications, (if any) that the SPDAT makes vis a vis sex work is the implication that many people who engage in sex work do so not by choice, but due to a lack of other options or because they are in fact forced to do so to survive.

    ultimately, for what it’s worth, i think that the question is fine where it is, and the wording is fine as it is.

    remember these are all “yes or no” questions.
    the amount of context needed to accompany the answer is exactly zero.
    a well-trained outreach worker who is familiar with even the basics of trauma informed care should easily be able to tread lightly enough to avoid re-traumatization of the interview subject.

    just my opinion

    • Chris Conner says:

      Hey notorious jay–

      I would think we agree on more than you’re assuming. My issue is not that we should not “acknowledge” sex work exists or that it is awkward to discuss sex work (also an outreach worker here). The issue is that there is only one field on the VISPDAT that asks “Do you have money coming in”. How that field gets answered has implications for how “vulnerable” the person is scored to be. Aligning the option of sex work alongside government benefits or over-the-table employment seems inappropriate insofar as we find non-consensual survival sex work relevant to someone’s vulnerability (especially in terms of #yesallwomen). Currently, if someone is “bringing money in” through non-consensual survival sex then the instrument sees it as equivalent to “bringing money in” via gov’t benefits or having regular employment. The question does not ethically care about sexual exploitation in its determination of vulnerability–indeed I do NOT think it acknowledges sex work appropriately. It acknowledges it as a means to money (and the instrument tends to think of $ as “good”), not as coercion. By all means, ask people about sex work and whether the sex work they do is by real choice (i.e. a choice made in the context of real options). However, if the answer is “Yes, I do ‘bring money in’ by being pimped” then that should indicate that the person is more vulnerable, but the current instrument indicates the person is less since the only thing the question is currently concerned with is the money. There is money coming in = good, less vulnerable. The current question is a “yes or no” question and that’s the problem. “Yes” indicates less vulnerability because the question is only concerned about “whether you have money coming in”–it doesn’t care how that money is made and even legitimizes non-consensual survival sex work. I’m thinking here about how the survey works and what consequences this question has for #yesallhomelesswomen (and men, and Trans).