The number of homeless people in the United States has been increasing rapidly over the past several years and women have been among the fastest growing group. Among the most advanced nations, the United States has the highest number of homeless women and children. Of homeless women, 60% have children who are under 18, but not many of these women live with their children. The sad reality is that services for homeless people over the years have been created for and by men, as men make up a large proportion of the homeless, as noted by researcher Esther Merves in her 2012 paper “Homeless Women.” Furthermore, many women don’t feel safe in these male-dominated programs.
Women face profound challenges when homeless. For example, being out in the middle of the night exposes them to the threat of stalkers and rapists. The truth is that homeless women of any age group try to survive by becoming invisible. These women stay awake at night out of fear; they sleep on benches, in abandoned houses, in airports and even on buses. As Robert Hartmann McNamara chronicled in his three-volume series “Homelessness in America,” life becomes dangerous and unhealthy. Food comes from the most shunned places such as garbage cans and the back of restaurants. Women become vulnerable to physical abuse and are at a heightened risk of sexual assault. In the same places homeless women look to find shelter are homeless men, pimps and drug addicts who prey on these women under the guise of offering protection.
In Boston, the closure of the Long Island Bridge in 2014 exacerbated homelessness, especially female homelessness. The bridge had been the only access point to the Boston Harbor Island for the last 63 years. When the authorities in the Massachusetts Department of Transportation decided to close the bridge, they also closed the largest homeless shelter in the city. Those who used to reside on the island were given three hours to leave. This became a menace because hundreds of the displaced people had to be sheltered. The numbers were overwhelming. Women faced the most difficult scenario because they lived in overcrowded places where hygiene became a luxury.
More Boston women are now living in emergency shelters. The reason for this could be because Boston has very high rents, and there are very few low-income housing units in the city. The good news is that over the years many shelters have emerged to assist homeless women and people in Boston. Eight months after the closure of the bridge, Boston city officials opened a new shelter in the Boston Newmarket area. Other shelters for women have also emerged such as Rosie’s Place and the Women’s Lunch Place. Woods-Mullen, formerly a co-ed shelter, is now women only. These shelters in Boston offer necessities such as toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, soap, clothing, healthcare and education. They also offer a place for women to express themselves and develop other talents they might have.
The question then becomes: what are the major causes of homelessness among women in the United States, specifically in Boston? Research has found many causes, but the primary ones include domestic violence, job or income loss resulting from poverty, mental illness and drug abuse.
Homeless women are more likely to have gone through childhood sexual abuse and partner abuse. These women become homeless after deciding to escape domestic violence and protect themselves and their children. Massachusetts allows survivors of domestic abuse to stay in shelters specifically designed for such women for a maximum of 90 days.
Most of the women who experience job loss usually depend on one salary and do not have the finances to cater for their needs, such as housing, leading to evictions and, in the event of mortgages, defaults. Additionally, since the 2008 Great Recession in the United States, wealth has been concentrated in the hands of just a few wealthy individuals. This has caused some middle-class women to struggle to pay the rent and eventually become homeless. Cities such as Boston have also had very high rents and few affordable housing units, resulting in women being homeless.
Mentally ill women tend to have significant challenges when it comes to fulfilling their housing obligations and even maintaining their houses. Mental illness among women is sometimes caused by poverty, and depression and anxiety are among the other factors affecting women, all of which exacerbate the risk of homelessness.
Alcohol and substance abuse have been shown to affect individuals across all social classes. However, women who are on the verge of poverty or living in poverty do not have access to services to help them recover from these addictions, leading to cases of homelessness. Once they are homeless, women face social stigma and find it more difficult to handle housing obligations later on; hence, they move from shelter to shelter.
Is it possible to end the epidemic of women’s homelessness in the United States? The answer is definitely yes. But this will take some time, the political will of U.S. leaders and the allocation of adequate resources to solve the problem once and for all. We also need to look deeply at the causes of women’s homelessness. For the past several years, we’ve only been able to solve the after effects of homelessness. It’s high time the U.S. government decided to look into the causes of the issue.
Increasing the availability of affordable housing in cities such as Boston will help ease the problem and reduce waiting lists for those who need affordable housing. Affordable housing initiatives and policies should be targeted and designed for those women who rely on low or fixed incomes.
Affordable health care would also keep more women off the streets. With affordable health care, it would be easier to treat diseases, creating stability in the lives of women who will then find it easier to manage their housing finances.
Support services for homeless women would also enable women to stand on their own financially. Boston has implemented strategies such as subsidised childcare services. This way, women can leave their children in safe places and go out and look for money to support themselves and their children and thus have the ability to pay the rent.
Domestic and family violence exacerbates women’s risk of homelessness in multiple ways. From several research studies conducted on domestic violence and homelessness, it has come to light that safety concerns most often lead women and their children into homelessness. As Merves noted, when a woman experiences domestic violence, they may arrive at a point where they fear for their own safety and that of their children, leading them to leave their home in search of better accommodation. The time it takes to reach this point varies from one woman to another. For some women, it may take year, while for others, one incidence of domestic violence is enough to make them to decide to flee.
Other difficulties include lack of adequate funding, inadequate capacity to accommodate women in crisis situations, the need to relocate women to safer locations away from violence and the provision of affordable long-term housing. Services that are supposed to provide help to women fleeing from violence are not working properly. This is the reason why the number of homeless women in America is increasing year after year. More resources are needed in the public sector, and policies must be put into place to ensure that women experiencing homelessness due to domestic and family violence or other reasons will be able to acquire affordable housing.