Building Back Better for Homeless Women

By Suzette Shaw, Skid Row resident and Alliance Consumer Advisory Board member.

What does “Build Back Better” mean for women who are being displaced into poverty and experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles?

I have witnessed firsthand the systemic barriers that this population faces when trying to access services. And there are many ways that we can “Build Back Better” – by removing these barriers and focusing specifically on people who haven’t had systemic support. The question is, will we?

Women Aren’t Adequately Served

When I came to Skid Row nearly nine years ago, I was one of the many women who was given a bed on the backside of a men’s program. The dollars and therefore resources were minimum to none when it came to the cultural relevance of supporting our needs.

Many of us have had negative experiences and don’t feel supported by systems that are supposed to serve us. I’ve witnessed more and more women flee to the streets due to domestic violence and precarious living situations. The programs available by and large had mainly been written to accommodate the needs of men, so they had no place to put us. There are not enough resources targeted to women on Skid Row.

Caseworkers, by and large, were not empathetic to us because they didn’t understand our journey(s) and therefore trauma. The lack of insensitivity only further exacerbated the trauma we were already experiencing. This showed up in instances of implicit bias: a lack of cultural competency of a workforce too often younger and uninformed to be effectively “trauma informed” and meet us where we were. 

While I speak from my own experience, the statistics show that there is a dire need to better serve women experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles:

  • Women’s homelessness has nearly doubled in LA, at a rate outpacing that of men.
  • Unaccompanied women make up nearly 2/3 of all women experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.
  • Unaccompanied women are more likely to be unsheltered and chronically homeless than men or women in families.
  • According to the 2019 City of Los Angeles’s Women’s Needs Assessment, 60% of women experienced some form of trauma or violence in the previous year alone.
  • There are not nearly enough gender specific resources for women in Los Angeles, nor anywhere in the state.
  • Black women making up 8% of all women in Los Angeles, but “are 28.7% of those surveyed in this assessment, and 39.7% of women who participated in Skid Row,” according to the 2019 City of Los Angeles’s Women’s Needs Assessment.
  • In fact, here in Skid Row, where I resided, Black middle aged to elderly women are the number one demographic displaced into poverty and homelessness, not just year after year, but decade after decade.

But these numbers don’t pop out of nowhere. There is a long lasting legacy of systemic barriers that have led to the current state of homelessness for women in LA.

How Upstream Barriers Impact Our Current Reality

Much of what we consider “success” stems from the reality that there are many systemic obstacles and instances of discrimination a majority of people did not have to face.

The Norman Rockwell-esque, nuclear-family-living-in-the-suburbs image was never meant to reference a person of color such as myself. As a matter of fact, nor was public housing. History shows White families were able to move from public housing to the suburbs and build generational wealth living as cheap as they did in public housing. 

Furthermore, the ladder to success for the Black women, and therefore Black family, has been subjected to redlining. This systemic discrimination plays a part in homelessness now: for years, housing access was determined by race, and that was legal. Now that it isn’t, the effects still remain.

Just recently (10/22), Attorney General Garland called out the systemic barriers due to intentional redlining by our government and banks, which has sought to cheat people who look like me out of home ownership. Building equity in one’s home is the number one way generational wealth is built. But that opportunity has not been there for generations of people of color. And when there is less opportunity for a home, there is more of a likelihood to become homeless. These systemic effects still linger, and are reflected in the current day homeless demographics. But now with expanded resources comes the opportunity to change this course – if we only take responsibility and do it.

Making Structural Changes to Remedy Structural Racism

Efforts to re-structure these systemic damages have been brought to the table, but they have not succeeded.

Downtown Women’s Center, here in Skid Row, has garnered support of elected officials across our city and county, raising awareness of the plight of unaccompanied women and pushing for policy changes to support us.

California State Senator Susan Rubio supported the Unaccompanied Women Experiencing Homelessness Act of 2021 (SB 678), which would have allowed for resources to build an infrastructure to support this vulnerable subpopulation. Although it had overwhelming bipartisan and community support, when it went before the California State Assembly Housing and Community Development over the summer it was sadly killed by the Assembly Appropriations. I was honored to support it along with Senator Rubio, but its rejection makes a clear point: the political will is not present to fund services specifically for homeless women.

The Build Back Better plan, too, needs to acknowledge the history of these obstacles if we are to “build back” in an equitable way.

Clearly, when we reference “Build Back Better,” there have been systemic barriers which have intentionally and unintentionally left sub populations at a deficit. These past policy decisions have left gender and race out of the entire equation, and need to be addressed moving forward. By leaving certain populations behind – like women and people of color – decades, and therefore generations, have been negatively impacted by not having the same opportunity to get ahead.

With Build Back Better, what will be different this time? Will there be better structures in place to support the needs of women of color experiencing homelessness?

The main question is, when they now factor in “Build Back Better,” will equality for those who look like me finally be better?

Well, time will tell…