7 unique challenges homeless women face — and what you can do to help
By Katie Dupere, April 12, 2016
Uncertainty, struggle and stigma are just some of the threads that knit together the shared experiences of the homeless community.
But for women who are homeless, there are several unique challenges only they know: What it's like to have a period without access to supplies. What it's like to monitor your behavior due to fear of sexual assault. What it's like to be pregnant and not have the services you desperately need.
Although many of us think homelessness is rare, living without access to stable housing is more common than you think. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 1 in 194 people in the U.S. will experience homelessness at some point over a year-long period.
Women and families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
As of 2015, there were about 565,000 homeless people living in the United States on any given night. It’s estimated that women comprise a little under 40% of that population. But that number may shift. Women and families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with 85% of homeless families headed by single women.
Though homelessness is not only a women’s issue, there are some issues only homeless women have to navigate, which deserve our attention and action.
Here are seven unique challenges homeless women face -- and what you can do to help.
1. Access to menstruation products is often limited.
For homeless women, coping with menstruation is a monthly challenge -- and often a nightmare. The majority of shelters aren’t allocated governmental funds to put toward period products, and pads and tampons often rank low on the financial list of priorities for homeless women.
Anyone with a period knows products are costly, with a box of tampon or pads costing around $5 to $10, plus tax. Even in public restrooms, a pad or tampon, which can be used for around 8 hours at most, will set you back at least 25 cents. Over the course of a week-long cycle, that money adds up -- and fast.
Many homeless women say the cost is unmanageable, often using ripped pieces of cloth or toilet paper instead of sanitary napkins or tampons, risking infection.
What you can do: There are several regional organizations dedicated to broadening access to period products for homeless women, with Distributing Dignity one of the most wide-reaching efforts. To make a local impact, reach out to local homeless shelters to donate period products to women in your local community.
2. Access to comprehensive maternal health care can be difficult.
Research has shown the rate of unintended pregnancies among homeless women is much higher than that of the general population -- and complications in birth are far more common for homeless women and their babies. Notably, homeless women are almost three times more likely to have a preterm delivery than housed women, often leading to costly health complications for their infants.
For any woman, the path to motherhood is often an expensive one, full of doctor’s appointments, medication and high-priced products for infants. Though there are services where homeless, expectant mothers can get free care, many put off accessing services out of fear of losing their newborn to child protection agencies, or because they are under-informed about which particular services exist.
Aside from the care, the system is often overwhelmed, leading many to believe homeless women are receiving care of a lower quality.
What you can do to help: National organizations like the Homeless Prenatal Program use donations to help women get connected to resources in their local area, ensuring they have access to quality care. To have a local impact, research local women’s health organizations doing work to serve homeless populations in your area.
3. Homelessness only exacerbates the burden of childcare on women.
Women often carry the burden of childcare -- and homelessness certainly doesn’t change that. With the overwhelming majority of homeless families headed by women, there’s pressure on women to create a more stable housing situation for not only themselves, but their children. If they don’t, many fear their children will be taken away from them by the state.
But homeless women, especially mothers of young children not yet in school, have to juggle the need of working to save up money and caring for their children. It’s a balance that’s complicated -- if not impossible -- to obtain, which is why support services dedicated to women and children are essential.
What you can do to help: National organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless provide support for all homeless populations, including families. For more specialized efforts, look in your local area for organizations serving families impacted by homelessness. And, most importantly, actively and vocally support often stigmatized governmental programs like WIC and childcare assistance that serve low- or no-income women without judgment or ridicule.
4. 1 in 4 women consider domestic violence to be the main factor in their current homelessness.
For many women, the immediate impacts of domestic violence are a major contributor to unstable housing. It’s estimated that about 63% of the sheltered homeless population are survivors of domestic violence, with 1 in 4 homeless women reporting domestic violence the main factor in their current homelessness.
Women, especially stay-at-home mothers who are out of the workforce and rely on their abusive partners financially, are especially at risk for unstable housing after leaving an abusive relationship. Notably, some women, fearing homelessness, stay in dangerous relationships to avoid the hardships of unstable housing.
What you can do to help: Since domestic violence and homelessness are so closely tied, donating to or volunteering at a domestic violence shelter near you is guaranteed to help women affected at the intersection of both issues. National organizations like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and The National Domestic Violence Hotline also assist both homeless and housed women experiencing domestic violence and abuse.
5. Being homeless often means decreased personal safety for women.
Homeless women don’t only have to deal with financial stresses, but they also have to deal with concerns for their personal safety. Not having a home often means sleeping in shelters, many of which are male-dominated, given that the majority of homeless populations are male.
Many women report they have felt unsafe in shelters, or are survivors of gendered trauma stemming from stays in shelters. And life on the streets, especially in major cities, doesn't provide more safety by any means.
Homeless women have shared harrowing accounts of being sexually assaulted in showers at general intake shelters, and avoiding public restrooms late at night in fear of harassment or abuse. Women also rarely panhandle, often fearing doing so will make them a target for gender-based crime and violence.
What you can do: Support women-specific shelters providing a safe space for women who may not feel safe in the majority of all-gender shelters by donating or volunteering. Visit here to find local shelters doing work directed toward women specifically.
6. Homeless women are living with mental illness at much higher rates than the general population.
About 1 in 4 of all homeless people live with a severe mental illness, which often goes untreated given low availability of mental health resources to low-income populations.
In the U.S., 47% of homeless women meet the criteria for a major depressive disorder alone, which is twice the rate of women in the general population. High rates of violence and assault toward homeless women also contribute to mental health disparities, with trauma often left unaddressed.
With mental health both underserved and stigmatized in the general population, it’s no surprise homeless women have an especially hard time accessing care.
What you can do: Make an effort to help fund comprehensive mental health care for homeless individuals. National organizations like Care for the Homeless and Mental Health America both work to address the intersection of mental health and homelessness. Additionally, cut the mental health stigma in your own life -- especially when it comes to talking about homeless populations.
7. Gender inequality in jobs makes escaping homelessness even more difficult.
From the gender pay gap to sexism in the workplace, gender inequality in jobs is not a new conversation. Although gender inequality in the workplace impacts all women, the way it impacts homeless women is rarely talked about.
The financial hardship associated with homelessness is a burden often only lifted by stable income, which usually means stable employment. But more than half of all homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma, meaning programs that help homeless women gain job skills or more education are essential.
What you can do: National organizations like Coalition for the Homeless have a job training programs that are designed to provide job skills to women without stable housing. Additionally, many shelters have educational training programs to help homeless populations pursue GEDs and higher education. To see which homeless shelters in your area provide to the populations they serve, visit here.
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