Women Homelessness

The Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row is serving so many homeless women that it has taken to setting up inflatable mattresses in the hallways on some evenings. 

On May 31, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority made waves by reporting that homelessness in L.A. County had decreased by 3% in a one-year period, while the number of homeless individuals in the city had fallen by 5%.

The headlines overshadowed an alarming statistic contained deep in the 2018 LAHSA Homeless Count: The number of women living on the streets of Skid Row has jumped by 35%.

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The community replete with tent encampments and people living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions saw the number of women without permanent shelter skyrocket from 1,072 people when the three-day count was conducted in January 2017, to 1,442 during the count this past January.

The 2017 homeless count reported that women made up 23% of the people living on Skid Row. This year, that figure has jumped to 34%. LAHSA says 4,294 homeless people reside in the community.

The numbers are a stark difference from what is being seen across L.A. County. According to the 2018 homeless count, the number of women living on the streets decreased by 4%, from 17,148 in 2017 to 16,410 this year.

Tom Waldman, communications director for LAHSA, said that it is unclear why the number of homeless women in Skid Row has jumped so dramatically.

The increase is not a surprise to Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, which operates a shelter and a string of support services at 545 S. San Pedro St. In fact, Bales said that the overall decrease reported by LAHSA is a little hard to believe based on his daily experience at the shelter.

“Maybe my vision is skewed from where I work, but the dip of 3%-5% could just be explained by a margin of error,” he said. “I’m really grateful it didn’t grow 25%, but I wouldn’t want anyone to pat themselves on the back and say we solved this.”

The Union Rescue Mission was founded 126 years ago and provides services such as emergency housing, skills training and meals for the homeless population. It has been headquartered at its current site since 1994.

Bales has been on the front lines as homelessness has worsened; despite the reported decline this year, last year homelessness in the county soared 23% over 2016 levels. In response to the rising number of people on the streets, the mission 2 1/2 years ago began utilizing its first floor day room as an emergency shelter. Later, the facility’s chapel was drafted as an overnight emergency shelter specifically for women.

Now, on some evenings, blow-up mattresses trail out of the chapel and are placed throughout the hallways for women seeking a safe place. 

“We never turn away a single woman away from our door,” Bales said. “We never turn away a family from our door. We’ve just had to make space and continue to accommodate.”

 The shelter houses 1,100 people in their Downtown location. Bales estimates that 630 are women and children, and 350 are likely single women.

Bales said that that not only is the number of women increasing, but so is the presence of families in Skid Row: He said the Downtown facility currently houses 207 children. During the Great Recession, the all-time high for children was 136.

Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at the Midnight Mission, said that staff at the facility at 601 S. San Pedro St. is also seeing more homeless women. The mission offers an overnight shelter, along with counseling and healthcare services.

“I wouldn’t say we’re surprised,” said Berkovich. “We tend to think they are even higher than that.”

 Berkovich said the mission began receiving additional funding in May from LAHSA to add 15 beds to an overnight center for women that opened in February. Now, its Women’s Crisis and Bridge Housing has a total of 57 beds.

The URM also is looking into ways to increase its emergency shelter space for women soon. Bales said the mission recently submitted plans to the city to erect a structure in the facility’s parking lot to house another 100 women.

Bales said that as the situation gets worse, he’ll likely keep accepting shelter seekers.

“We’ve just been trying to do our part and step up to the need,” Bales said. 

Business as Usual

Despite the LAHSA findings, not everyone in Skid Row reports seeing a worsening situation for women.

Ana Velouise, director of communication and policy at the Downtown Women’s Center, said she hasn’t noticed much of a change. She suggested that is because the number of women receiving services at the facility’s day clinic has remained constant in the past few years.

“It’s a steady flow,” she said. “There is no ebbing.”

In 2017, the LAHSA homeless count reported a sharp, 55% increase over a three-year period in the amount of homeless women in the county.  That far outpaced the increase for men on a percentage basis.

“Every single day there are huge amounts of women coming through our day clinic,” Velouise said. “For us it’s business as usual.”

What makes the rise in homelessness among women even more troubling is that physical and sexual abuse is a constant and may deter women from accessing support services, according to Velouise.

According to a needs assessment study conducted in 2016 by the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, close to 90% of homeless women have experienced some sort of physical, mental or sexual abuse in their lifetime. That report also noted that 40% of women who reported sleeping most frequently in a shelter or on the street had experienced sexual or physical violence in the past 12 months.

Given those statistics, Velouise said it is important that service providers recognize how trauma can impact a woman’s reaction toward services.

“The population of women just have a very different set of needs than men do,” she said.

In addition, the recent LAHSA homeless count revealed that 29% of the homeless population in Skid Row has experienced domestic or partner violence, and 9% of the population reported that they are living on the streets in an effort to flee an abusive relationship.

At Chrysalis, which offers job training and housing assistance for homeless people, the number of women seeking services has leveled out after a steep increase from 2014-2016, according to Molly Moen, vice president of development and communication for the nonprofit. 

The rise in homeless women in Skid Row coincides with an increase in overall first-time homelessness. The LAHSA report found that 9,322 individuals are experiencing homelessness for the first time, up from about 8,000 last year.

“We need to make sure that part of our community’s efforts to address homelessness include a focus on financial stability and employment,” Moen said in an email.


© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018