By Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D.
Over forty years ago, two fierce women from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet came together and founded St. Joseph Center. Operating out of a small storefront in Venice, they had one simple desire: to help the ‘dear neighbor’. Because of their historic leadership, thousands of lives have been changed and continue to be changed every day. From those humble beginnings, the organization has grown to help over 10,000 people a year across LA County. That is the power of women working together.
On March 4, as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, women leaders at St. Joseph Center, along with the City of Santa Monica’s Commission on the Status of Women, hosted a ‘lunch and learn’ on the intersection of race, gender, and politics. Over a delicious meal prepared by students of our Culinary Training Program, activists, volunteers, students, and service providers came together for an intimate conversation on the challenges – and solutions – to some unique problems women face.
One topic discussed, and an issue we work on every day at St. Joseph Center, is the crisis of women and homelessness. In Los Angeles County alone, more than 18,000 will sleep on the streets tonight. Living is especially dangerous for women who find themselves on the street, where they are disproportionately affected by violence. They also experience high rates of trauma: 40% are victims of sexual assault, 55% are survivors of domestic violence, and nearly 70% suffered abuse as children.
Women are also vulnerable to falling into homelessness. Nearly half of the women who are currently homeless report losing their housing for the first time in the past year. Many are single mothers without family who can help with childcare or expenses. They face rent increases they can’t afford. Illegal evictions put elderly women at risk. Simply put, there isn’t enough affordable housing for everyone who needs a home in our communities.
But thanks to the investments of the people of Los Angeles County, thousands of these women are getting help. We now have the resources to truly address this crisis. In just the past three years, we have tripled the number of staff at St. Joseph Center, including adding outreach teams with nurses, doctors, social workers, and people with lived experience who fan out across the city to get women experiencing homelessness the support they need to regain stability. In 2018, over 21,000 formerly homeless women and men were placed in housing in Los Angeles, and another 27,000 were helped in finding other paths to housing, such as reuniting with family. This is part of the nationwide success of the “Housing First” model, which puts people who need housing into homes without preconditions. This policy helped decrease the overall number of people experiencing homelessness nationwide by 87,000 from 2008 to 2018.
We can all be proud of this exciting trend. But how can we continue to help women in our community who are still without shelter?
First, and foremost, everyone can contribute to elevating women in our communities with the simple act of being an advocate for women. Support nonprofits who help women. Volunteer your time, care, and commitment at SJC or another agency working with vulnerable women. Support elected officials who make the health and wellbeing of women a priority. Say yes to affordable housing in your community so we can bring homeless women off the streets. Meet your neighbors who are experiencing difficulties with compassion and understanding. Recognize that many factors, often beyond their control, contributed to their present challenges. And finally, remember that many of the factors that created today’s crisis were years in the making. Even with all the resources we have committed today, ending homelessness in Los Angeles will not happen overnight. We are working hard, and we are making progress, but it will take time.
Women face unique challenges – but women are resilient. At St. Joseph Center, we see this every day in the determination of women to overcome their present situations. They work hard to get the skills they need to support themselves and their families, to build mental health and wellness, and to shift the power dynamic. Following in the footsteps of the fearless women who founded St. Joseph Center, we are seeing a new generation of powerful women rise up, work together, and organize to transform the lives of women in our community. This Women’s History Month, we proudly celebrate the lives of inspiring women, but we can’t stop there. Now is the time to work together to make sure all women – and all of us in Los Angeles – have a brighter future.
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D. is President & CEO of St. Joseph Center.