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:
- Focus on housing as the solution to homelessness. Safe, secure and affordable housing decreases the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault.
- Through outreach and shelters, expand knowledge of available sexual assault resources within the community to help address and work on recovery from past experiences.
- 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.
- 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.
- Expand access to women’s health resources through health services available to homeless persons.
- Address stigma, sexism and inappropriate comments and actions amongst service providers, government programs, and other homeless persons where/if it is encountered.
- Integrate education of homeless women’s issues into orientation to homeless services for new employees.
- 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.
- As resources allow, permit formerly homeless women to select a woman as a case manager, if preferred.
- 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.