Recognizing Women Experiencing Homelessness: A Women’s History Month Spotlight on Downtown Women’s Center

Written by: Amy Turk, CEO, Downtown Women’s Center

The experience of homelessness bears especially hard on women.

Homelessness experienced by women is made unique by their disproportionate experiences of gender-based violence including domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, human trafficking, and sexual assault, and is experienced both cisgender (those who identify with the gender assigned them at birth) and transgender women. Over time, women’s wealth compounds at a lower rate compared to men due to persistent pay gaps, resulting in higher rental cost burdens and housing instability. Though younger women are facing higher rates of first-time homelessness, gendered wealth disparities also force older women, no longer able to afford the cost of living, into homelessness. Older women face more chronic health conditions and, on average, die 35 years prematurely. Due to longstanding systemic racism and sexism, women’s homelessness is disproportionately experienced by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.

Identifying Unique Subpopulations Changes Lives

Over the past several years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies have diligently worked to address the challenges and needs of specific groups within the overall homeless population – specifically veterans, families, youth, and the chronically homeless. Through these efforts of “designating” subpopulations, we have seen that targeting resources to specific groups is much more effective in reducing homelessness than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and that incidence of homelessness amongst these subpopulations are lowered.

Unfortunately, one group that has not been identified as a subpopulation of people experiencing homelessness are individual women – individuals who are not accompanied by partners, children, or dependents and who do not qualify for resources allocated for families and are more likely to be survivors of domestic violence.

Since HUD began to disaggregate data by gender in 2015, the numbers point to troubling trends. Nationally, while the percentage of women and girls within the overall unhoused population is virtually unchanged– 40% in 2015 compared to 39% in 2019 – the percentage of individual women experiencing homelessness has risen dramatically. According to the 2019 AHAR, 53% of all unhoused women are unaccompanied, compared to 45% in 2015, for a total of 115,635 women nationwide. Thus, decreases in family homelessness can mask increases in homelessness among unaccompanied women.

Unaccompanied women now make up 29% of all unhoused individuals in America today. Per the 2019 AHAR, there are 60% more unaccompanied women unhoused in this country than there are unaccompanied youth (35,038) and veterans (37,085) combined. In short, unaccompanied women are significantly represented within homelessness and are numerically larger than other groups garnering focused attention by advocates and service providers.

There has also been a commensurate increase in the number of unaccompanied women who are unsheltered – 47%, up eight percentage points since 2015. A 2019 review of VI-SPDAT data conducted by the California Policy Lab indicates unsheltered women have higher rates of physical health, mental health, and substance abuse concerns, and on average spend more than a decade without the benefit of stable housing. 80% of unsheltered women self-report trauma or abuse as the cause of their homelessness.

More women are falling into homelessness are doing so without family, are likely to wind up on the street, and are denied the resources available to unhoused families. Ultimately, these statistics point to the need for more targeted resources for women, and the need for local governments to respond accordingly.

Bringing Expertise to Decision-Making Tables

While there are many providers who serve people experiencing homelessness nationwide, there are a smaller number of providers who serve designated, targeted populations – such as women, LGBTQ people, veterans, etc. Because of their deeper knowledge of how these populations experience homelessness – and what specific needs or barriers they may encounter – these organizations are best suited to provide insight to local officials on how available resources can best address issues faced in these populations. Women experiencing homelessness have specific needs that may not be met in a general homeless service setting, and providers and advocates should make these needs known to officials – who, once they understand the scope of needs, can then provide funding and support.

Continuum of Care (CoC) and system leaders should also be in regular contact with providers who serve specific subpopulations (such as women) and solicit this feedback. This process can ensure that resources are allocated equitably – not just considering women experiencing homelessness, but considering equity as a whole. Continuing to work on race equity within homelessness is a continued national priority, as demonstrated by changes to the HUD CoC Program Competition process. Providers and system leaders should also work with their elected officials and local decision-making bodies to ensure that a racial equity lens is being applied to all levels of this work. This lens is especially important: while we know that BIPOC individuals disproportionately experience homelessness, there is no current data available on how racial disparities intersect with other demographics of people experiencing homelessness (e.g. BIPOC women, veterans, chronic homelessness, etc.). Since racial disparities cut across all populations of people experiencing homelessness, providers must have equity at the forefront – regardless of which targeted population they may be serving.

By tailoring services and data needs to subpopulations that are otherwise unaddressed – such as women experiencing homelessness – organizations can make progress on homelessness as a whole. But most times, providers need the support of local governments and funding in order to be able to meet these more specific needs.

This has been a focus of the Downtown Women’s Center’s work. The Downtown Women’s Center remains the only local organization in Los Angeles exclusively dedicated to addressing the needs of women overcoming homelessness and extreme poverty. This focus has allowed us to use our expertise to inform policies and practices at local levels, especially influencing how our CoC works to fund research and initiatives through the local government.

One way the Downtown Women’s Center is achieving this is through advocacy work, in partnership with Rainbow Services and California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, on a California State Senate bill (the HELP [“Homeless Equity for Left Behind Populations”] Act) that would embed a focus on domestic violence and individual women into local homelessness plans. This work has been informed by efforts on the local level to achieve a similar result in Los Angeles.

This is only one example of how organizations can use their depth of knowledge to advocate for the needs of specific populations they may serve. Communities can use tools like the Women’s Needs Assessment to inform this advocacy and illustrate the depth of need. We know that targeting resources to subpopulations is effective in ending their homelessness. To best serve women, we must address the clear need for more tailored services and more data gathered on women experiencing homelessness, and ensure that they are receiving services in an equitable manner.

Ways to Address Women’s Homelessness this Women’s History Month

  • Participate in local advocacy efforts to improve services for women experiencing homelessness and/or domestic violence: inform advocacy efforts if you are a women’s homelessness provider, and solicit input if you are a decision maker seeking to understand these needs.