A report being released this morning paints a staggering picture of a quickly growing Skid Row population. Women living on the streets are increasing in number and are older compared to past years, according to the study. More than 90% of surveyed Skid Row women also have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
“The report has a range of findings, but it is clear that targeting services and dollars to specific groups of homeless people is what gets to the root of the problem rather than just churning more people through the system. This is certainly true of women,” said Anne Miskey, CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center.
The report, dubbed the 2016 Downtown Women’s Needs Assessment, was led by the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition (of which DWC is a partner) and based on surveys conducted with 371 homeless or formerly homeless women by the USC School of Social Work. It comes on the heels of a count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that reported a 55% increase in the number of homeless women in Los Angeles County since 2013.
A key finding is that women in Skid Row are getting older: 60.2% of women were 51 or older, compared to 47% in 2010. Older women reported poorer health than in previous surveys.
The trailing effects of the economic recession continue to be cited as a cause of homelessness. The DWAC report notes that nearly two-thirds of surveyed women graduated from high school or completed their GED. In 2010, just 31.8% of women responded that level of academic achievement.
The most shocking statistics concerns violence: 91% of women reported having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, with 34.3% having endured domestic violence or sexual assault within the last year.
The report also details how sub-groups of women experience homelessness differently. Skid Row’s homelessness has a racial imbalance, Miskey noted — while black women represent just 8% of the county’s female population, 57.7% of surveyed homeless women were black.
Black women are more likely to be homeless for more than one year): 38.9%, versus 29.2% for Latina women and 26.3% for white women. They are also more likely to rebound back into homelessness, with nearly one-quarter of black women reporting being homeless more than four times over the past three years.
Miskey said that ethnicity figures into how services are provided, particularly with Latina women. They were more likely to report their physical health as “poor,” and 61.2% of Latina respondents noted a strong preference for women-only services, which was less important to white and black women.
“Immigrant women face complex challenges, including language barriers when asking for help, and, for undocumented women, ineligibility for public benefits or avoiding seeking help for fear of deportation,” the report states.
The report also found a disproportionate amount of homelessness among trans women. One in five trans individuals report being homeless at least once in their life. The same number say they have been refused a home or apartment, according to the study.
Trans women have an especially hard time seeking emergency shelter, and are often turned away or assigned the wrong gender on entry. They are also frequent targets of violence and sexual assault.
“With service providers, I would say there is a general openness to the trans community, but also a lack of cultural competency,” Miskey said. ‘With gender issues in general, it’s easy for providers to say, “We serve trans women,’ but there’s little to no training on the skills that demands.”
Many women report feeling unsafe in shelters, and Miskey noted that the number of women sleeping most frequently in shelters dropped slightly (32.3% from 36% in 2013) while the number of women on the street rose (29% versus 23.5%). Both shelters and the street are hotbeds of violence, as 40.3% of women who reported sleeping most frequently in a shelter or on the street experienced sexual or physical violence in the last year.
Regardless of whether a woman is housed or on the street, “survival sex” continues to be a reality: Nearly one in five women surveyed reported trading sex for money, alcohol, drugs, shelter, food or other goods. The DWAC report considers the number likely underreported, as nearly one-third of respondents declined to answer the prompt.
Most disturbingly, of women who did report using survival sex, 72% said they faced domestic violence or future sexual assault as a result.
Although the LAPD encourages women to report such crimes, the DWAC study found that the majority of police interactions were negative. Of women who said they had a police encounter within the last year, one-third received a citation and 40% were arrested. Half of the women who reported a police interaction said they were initially seeking help from a police officer.
“Ending the criminalization of women experiencing homelessness for quality of life offenses, such as sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk, is vital,” the report states. “These arrests and citations can be expensive and time consuming and, in turn, push women further into poverty and away from permanent housing rather than improving community safety.”
Miskey noted that studying homeless women is a rare occurrence, as the majority of people sleeping on the street are men. Reports like this one, she said, offer the opportunity to find specialized solutions for a community that is suffering in greater numbers than ever.