By Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D.
March is Women’s History Month, a time when we acknowledge and learn about the achievements of women history-makers. But even as we celebrate these contributions, on any given night in 2019 there are over 18,000 women who fall asleep homeless in Los Angeles County.
In May 2016, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) revealed a troubling rise in homelessness among women—a 70% increase in the number of unsheltered females since 2009. This sobering statistic was a call to action. In response, then-Chair of the LAHSA Commission Wendy Greuel created an Ad Hoc Committee on Women & Homelessness, composed of 19 members including service providers, leaders in the field, people with lived experience of homelessness, and representatives from both the City and County of Los Angeles.
The Committee found that many factors contribute to women losing their housing. These include economic barriers and disproportionately low wages, lack of affordable childcare, the high cost of living and a scarcity of affordable housing in Los Angeles. Together, these create a perfect recipe for vulnerable women to fall into homelessness.
Past trauma is also a major risk factor. Roughly 40% of women experiencing homelessness are survivors of sexual assault, 55% are survivors of domestic violence, and nearly 70% are survivors of child abuse. There is also high rates of human trafficking, including labor and sex trafficking, amongst homeless women. For many of these women, violence is an ongoing reality. Because our city lacks sufficient safe and affordable housing, women here are more likely to be forced into an impossible choice: remain in a violent relationship or face the dangers of life on the street.
After all these areas were explored, a key theme emerged: helping our homeless neighbors is not a one-size-fits-all solution. This complex issue requires many different approaches. Services must be delivered through a trauma-informed lens that takes into account gender and race.
This all leads to a critical question: How can we help women who are experiencing homelessness?
The Ad Hoc Committee provided a range of recommendations. The report indicates that we should advocate for services that prevent women from becoming homeless in the first place, including the importance of providing housing, mental health treatment, and job training. We should have more tailored programs available for women who are survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. We should also recognize and champion the voice of women with lived experience, whose insights were included in the Committee’s process. These women showed great resilience as they sought out safe places to sleep each night and maintained hope as they worked their way back to stability.
Here at St. Joseph Center, we see this bravery and hope every day. We see it in Nakiah, who lost her home because her son and husband were diagnosed with the same debilitating nerve disorder and medical bills forced them into bankruptcy. After living out of a car for two years, Nakiah graduated from Codetalk, our job training program that teaches unemployed and formerly homeless women front-end web development. Nakiah now supports her family by developing websites at home, which gives her the flexibility to care for her son and husband.
We see this fierce courage in Shaundra, who became homeless after a bitter divorce. For a time, Shaundra was so depressed that she considered suicide. Instead, she enrolled in Codetalk and now is in a stable home and working as a web manager for a local college.
We see this hope in DeeDee, who ended up on the streets after she lost her apartment of twenty years due to rising rent. At St. Joseph Center, case managers referred her to our Culinary Training Program, which prepares unemployed and formerly homeless adults to enter the food service industry. Today, DeeDee owns a catering company and earns enough to live independently again.
At St. Joseph Center, we see the strength of women in the mothers who travel by city bus to get groceries for their families at our Food Pantry; in the women who diligently work for new opportunities in our job training programs; and in the women who retain their sense of hope even as they struggle to survive on the streets. These women are the face of resilience.
To combat homelessness among women we must address the sources of trauma and the systemic obstacles that prevent women from earning a living wage, securing safe and dependable childcare, and obtaining affordable housing. In celebration of National Women’s History Month, let us pledge to work together to make this a reality.
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D. is President & CEO of St. Joseph Center.