Homelessness as a Gendered Issue
According to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), “On a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States” and 35% of those people were staying in unsheltered locations. The AHAR found that around 39% of people experiencing homelessness are women, and 50% of those women experienced homelessness alone. However, there remains little recognition that women's homelessness is worth understanding. Men continue to be the face of homelessness. Women are rarely the subjects of homelessness research and as a result, knowledge generated about homelessness remains inadvertently dominated by the experiences of men. U.S social institutions are not working effectively to prevent homelessness, protect vulnerable women, provide them with the necessary accommodations, and help them recover. From the causes of homelessness to the impacts of sexual violence and reproductive health care, gender affects homelessness.
Many women become homeless due to past encounters with sexual violence or abuse. Becoming homeless both increases women’s risk of sexual violence and impacts their experience of sexual violence. Homeless women were more likely to have repeated experiences of sexual violence and to be assaulted by a stranger outside, additionally “sexual assaults committed against homeless women [are often] characterized by more violence and a greater number of sexual acts than those against housed women.” Because of the increased violence and magnitude of sexual assault experienced by homeless women, access to medical care is especially important for homeless women. Homelessness itself is a form of trauma which is coupled with the fact that homeless people are faced with an increased risk of victimization. However, the types of victimization experienced by homeless individuals are impacted by gender. In their study, Padgett and Struening found that “homeless men had higher rates of all types of injuries except burns, and higher rates of all types of victimization except beatings and sexual assault when compared with homeless women.” Even though increased risk of violence often characterizes experiences of homelessness, women and men face different risks. Because men make up the majority of the homeless population, problems that disproportionately affect women like sexual assault and beatings are minimalized in statistics that do not break down responses by gender. When homelessness is viewed from the experiences of men, sexual violence is overshadowed by other forms of victimization like forced robbery and stolen property. The problem of sexual violence only becomes clear when gender is included in the analysis of homelessness. Compared to both the general population and the male homeless population, homeless women experience sexual violence more frequently and in a more violent nature, necessitating an intersectional analysis to fully address the issue of sexual violence and homelessness.
Women represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population with no signs of slowing down. The three leading causes of homelessness in women are domestic violence, divorce, and employment discrimination. In addition to sexual violence, women who are homeless face difficulties when it comes to their overall physical and mental health. Homeless women struggle with access to feminine hygiene products, appropriate healthcare, and contraceptive methods. Instead of rejecting homeless women and their attempts to find safety, healthcare, and financial security, governmental and private organizations must provide resources and accurate information to homeless women. Because the media’s coverage of homeless women continually undermines the scope and diversity of homelessness, change cannot happen without proper representation. By understanding that homelessness is not tied to one narrative, we can work together to create lasting change.