Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Advocates push for women to be a focus of the war on homelessness

About 28 percent of the nation's more than half a million homeless are women without children or partners

LOS ANGELES — Dozens of women crowd the lobby of the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) here near Skid Row, rummaging through piles of clothes and rows of shoes. The atmosphere is jovial but many of these women are in dire straits.

They are homeless but often invisible in the nation’s campaign to end homelessness because they’re neither veterans nor have children on the street with them.

“Sadly, the attention (on them) would be very near the bottom,” said Anne Miskey, DWC’s chief executive. “People didn’t see the need to focus on women.”

The national effort to house the homeless has homed in largely on the chronically homeless — mostly veterans and families.

The Obama administration launched an effort to house all veterans by the end of 2015, which has succeeded in some cities. Three years ago, the focus was on homeless youths.

Now the Downtown Women’s Center is leading a national effort to pay attention to homeless women who are alone on the streets or in shelters, a situation that makes then ineligible for family social services.

Nationally, about 28 percent of the more than half a million people who were homeless on any given night in 2015 are unaccompanied women, according to the annual homeless assessment report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Los Angeles County, more than 13,500 people or a full third of the homeless population are women — more than 8,000 in the city alone.

About 60 percent of the women who end up homeless alone have experienced domestic violence. Half were sexually assaulted and 40 percent suffered child abuse.

“Domestic violence is No. 1,” said Amy Turk, chief programs officer at the center here.

Last month, DWC hosted national and regional leaders to discuss the crisis facing homeless women, a population that is under-researched and poorly funded.

“We need more research,” Miskey said. “When you have data, when you have facts, it’s harder for people to ignore the problem. We’re trying to get a groundswell of people to start to draw attention to this need … We have seen what the focus on veterans has done.”

Affordable housing in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country continues to be a challenge. DWC houses 71 women in studio apartments here and 48 more in another building. Most stay for an average of seven years. The center provides all women — residents and others — showers, three meals a day, health care, counseling and job training. The average age of residents is 50.

Homeless women’s needs are different from men’s, Miskey said. They need an environment where they can feel safe, something that may be tougher in co-ed shelters where many women report harassment and abuse by male residents.

“There is a need for single-sex services,” Miskey said, both in health care, counseling and job training.

Teressa Percell, left, was homeless for 10 years but now lives in a studio apartment at the Downtown Women's Center, and Amiyoko Shahbazz, who went through rehab and received help to find housing for herself and her kids.
Haya El Nasser

“I know I can come in to a door where there is no threat, no sexual harassment,” said Teressa Percell, who was homeless 10 years before finding refuge in a studio apartment at DWC.

Percell ended up on the streets after a divorce and she turned to drugs and alcohol. She spent a year in a temporary shelter and saw a psychiatrist at least once a month when she applied for an apartment at DWC.

She talks of life in transitional housing, where she felt intimidated by the male residents.

“It’s as dangerous as being out on the streets,” Percell said. “We’re already stigmatized.”

She’ll be “clean” 15 years Easter Sunday and after five years as a resident, she is now a peer leader at the center. She proudly displays pictures of her tidy studio but doesn’t want anyone to enter because she didn’t make the bed that morning. She and all residents pay 30 percent of their income from jobs or government benefits towards rent. That’s $52 a month for her towards the monthly rent of $970.

“I appreciate it so much,” Percell said,

Amiyoko Shahbazz’s mother was an addict. Shahbazz, 39, who had her first child at 16, followed the same path after two of her three children suffered trauma at the hands of a relative, a case that went to trial and ripped her family apart. She turned to cocaine, something she had fought hard not to do her entire life.

“Now, I’m like her,” she said of her mother, tears running down her face as she recounts her struggles.

Her children were taken away from her and she lost her home in 2010.

Shahbazz slept in her car and eventually moved to a substance abuse treatment center. For the past two years, with the help of DWC, she has lived in an apartment in Koreatown and works at Ralphs supermarket as an events specialist. Her oldest son is a student at University of California Davis.

“What women are looking for is often very different from what men are looking for,” Miskey said. “They want to reconnect with their children. They’re more focused on education and giving back. That’s why a lot of residents are in peer leadership programs.”

Magdalena Tran, 47, lived in a tent for two years, eventually landing an apartment at DWC where she’s been for four years. On a recent Friday, she sat at one of the terminals in the center’s computer lab, searching for designs for the crafts she makes and sells through DWC’s gift shop – candles, earrings, soaps, greeting cards.

On the outdoor patio, Denise Wulf, 56, and Gloria Hammerquist, 57, sit and chat in the warm January sun. Wulf became homeless after Hurricane Katrina displaced her and her husband died. The two have found shelter here for eight years.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles city and county each issued plans to tackle homelessness in the region.

“Basically, although strategies were very comprehensive, neither of them mentioned women at all,” said Rachel Kassenbrock, DWC’s public relations and policy coordinator. “Yes, the plans are really great and very encouraging but they need to address women.”

In a response to local officials, DWC said “the lack of recognition of unaccompanied women as a subpopulation with specific vulnerabilities and service needs is glaring and troubling … If you design for the majority, the minority falls through the cracks – the homeless women of greater Los Angeles deserve to be seen.”

As a result, the city revised its homeless strategy to include women and called for more research on homeless women and domestic violence survivors. The county made some revisions to include survivors of domestic violence but has yet to make changes to specifically address the needs of homeless women.

It’s not enough to provide housing, the main push under the widely adopted “housing first” strategy to end homelessness.

“It has to be safe housing for women,” Miskey said.

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